Artisanal Fishing: Who Will Save the Tunisian Damassa?

a fishing boat on the sea at sunset
Blue TN
Kerkennah, Tunisia
Artisanal Fishing: Who Will Save the Tunisian Damassa?

Away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, some twenty kilometers off the east coast of Sfax, lies the Kerkennah archipelago. This picturesque sanctuary is a haven of peace where serenity and authenticity mingle. Covering an area of 157 kmĀ², it comprises two main islands, Gharbi and Chargui, the latter surrounded by a myriad of smaller islets.

Kerkennah, a witness to history, has witnessed a mosaic of civilizations, from the Libyks to the Amazighs, from the Phoenicians to the Carthaginians, followed by the Romans, Byzantines and Arab-Muslims. These peoples have all left an indelible mark, shaping a rich and varied heritage that is still reflected today.

Like many islands around the world, Kerkennah is deeply rooted in fishing, the backbone of its local economy. This vital sector directly employs 32% of the local population, and indirectly supports a large proportion of the population through related activities such as the manufacture of fishing equipment, catering, handicrafts, industry and tourism.

Fishing in Kerkennah, mainly inshore, is adapted to a singular marine environment, characterized by vast shoals stretching for kilometers, with depths barely exceeding three meters. The local people have developed traditional fishing techniques in perfect harmony with their environment. These include " Charfia", listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage site in 2020, as well as various traps (" karour " pots and " drina" traps) and "Damassa" fishing, an ancestral method that is now on the verge of extinction.

Immersion in the ancestral art of Damassa

At dawn, around 5 a.m., in the port of Attaya, it's time to wake up to the first light of the sun. The sea, glistening with golden reflections, emanates a marine fragrance, while the waves whisper an air of tranquility. The fishermen of the Damassa, remarkable for their colorful baskets and palm hats, converge on their boats.

Their main boat, accompanied by three smaller feluccas, pulls away from the shore, taking with it the crew, a close-knit group sharing coffee and stories under the gaze of Raies Abdelfattah Ben Salem Khelif. An Attaya veteran with over fifty years' experience, he shares his memories with us.

"When I was a child, I used to skip school to go fishing with my father. It was a great source of happiness for me. At the age of 15, I gave up my studies to follow my passion. It was my father who taught me damassa fishing. It's a technique specific to the Attaya region. You can't find it anywhere else," says Raies Abdelfattah Ben Salem Khelif.

a man watching the sunrise by the sea
Fisherman Raies Abdelfattah Ben Salem Khelif, Kerkennah , Tunisia, 2023 / Credit: Blue TN.

The "Raies" navigates without GPS or compass, using his instinct and ancestral know-how to find the perfect spot to deploy the Dar, the jumping fish trap typical of this unique fishery. The trap is designed for jumping fish (mugilidae) such as yellow mullet(Milla) and jumping mullet(Karchou), hence the name "jumping fish".  This is where the crew disperse harmoniously into the small boats, and start rowing delicately, just long enough for the "Raies" to identify the location for setting up the " Dar ", the jumping fish trap.

The art of collective fishing

As soon as the fishing spot is determined by the Raies, a meticulous choreography begins. According to Rimmel Ben Massoud, Professor of Fisheries Science and a native of Kerkennah, the process begins with the first boat unrolling a vertical, non-fishing net, held in place by floats and sinkers. Simultaneously, a second boat unfurls a horizontal net, supported by evenly-spaced reed stems, setting the stage for the next act.

Once the circle is formed, a sailor in the third boat enters the scene, beating the water with a large stick to frighten the panicking fish into swimming towards the center. Trapped, they try to jump over the net, ending up caught in the horizontal net.

The atmosphere is transformed. The fishermen, moving through the shallow waters, collect the fish in a ballet of laughter and song, celebrating their harvest before moving on to a new site to begin again. This operation can be repeated up to six times a day. Ms. Ben Massoud emphasizes the complexity and collective nature of this technique: "Damassa fishing requires unfailing mastery and cooperation, with each member playing a key role in this aquatic ballet."

man standing in water by fish nets
Fisherman using the Damassa fishing technique in Kerkennah, Tunisia, October 2023 / Credit: Blue TN.


How to save the Damassa?

In Attaya, the age-old practice of Damassa fishing is in decline. Ms. Ben Massoud sheds light on the reasons for this decline. According to her, "the complexity and seasonality of this traditional method, compared with other more profitable and less demanding coastal fishing techniques, have contributed to its decline. What's more, a gradual erosion of know-how is making itself felt, with younger generations abandoning this trade, [now] deemed arduous."

There is an urgent need to safeguard this unique heritage. One serious approach would be to create a specific label for sustainable artisanal fisheries, including the Damassa. To achieve this, all that remains to be done is to raise awareness and mobilize the key players.

A multifaceted approach is essential to ensure the sustainability of the Damassa fishery. Developing sustainable tourism around this practice would open a unique window on this age-old tradition, while providing economic support to local communities. Also, establishing partnerships with NGOs and universities would enable in-depth research and effective strategies for its preservation. Celebrating the Damassa through cultural events and festivals would play a crucial role in raising public awareness, both locally and internationally. Finally, the formation of a development group dedicated to the Damassa, bringing together fishermen, experts, authorities and community members, would be a decisive step towards safeguarding and enhancing this priceless heritage. These joint initiatives would be the first step towards a robust strategy for safeguarding this ancestral tradition, while adapting it to contemporary realities.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in BlueTN on 25 January 2024 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. BlueTN is one of the Mediterranean Media Initiative media partners. 

Banner image: A fishing boat with "Damassa" equipment, Kerkennah, Tunisia, October 2023 / Credit: Blue TN.

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