Chapter 6: The Paradise of Empty Nets

A man's hand on a net
La Vanguardia
Kerkennah, Tunisia
Chapter 6: The Paradise of Empty Nets

Dawn breaks slowly and red, but Najt Hdidar, 56 years old, has no time for watercolors on the horizon; he firmly grasps the boat's engine and advances through the darkness. Farjant, twelve years his senior, stands silently at the bow, observing the calm sea that stretches before them. They are not the only ones venturing out early into these still dark waters. When the first yellow glimmers appear, half a dozen boats leave behind the port of Kraten, in the northeast of Kerkennah, an archipelago off the coast of the city of Sfax in eastern Tunisia.

A tattered Tunisian flag waves fiercely at the bow of Najt and Farjant's boat, giving the scene a warlike air, as if all these vessels moving in unison were not going fishing but waging a final battle for traditional fishing. After a while, Farjant pours a stream of olive oil onto a plate and dips a piece of "gallete" or fisherman's bread, a dry flour cake that stays fresh for days. They need to gather strength for the battle. Hours later, under the midday sun and with their hands still wet from pulling in the nets, Najt warns that the war is being lost: "Look at the nets, almost empty! We used to put out half the net and catch double the fish. We catch fewer and fewer fish now because of the trawlers, which destroy the seabed and break our nets. It's a disaster. We have to be thankful we're still alive."

Kerkennah, the birthplace of "charfiya," a centuries-old fishing technique that uses palm leaves to trap fish, considered Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, has always been a paradise for fishing. Located in the heart of Cape Bon, a breeding ground for Mediterranean species and a green lung of the sea because it hosts the largest Posidonia meadow in the Mediterranean, the Tunisian archipelago is the crown jewel of the country's fishing industry, employing 54,000 fishermen and generating 46,000 indirect jobs. But if all of Tunisia is perched on the Mediterranean (85% of the population lives on the coast), talking about Kerkennah is talking about fishing: 43% of the archipelago's workers are engaged in the fishing sector, almost triple the national percentage. But in recent years, talking about Kerkennah is also talking about a point of no return for the sea.

men standing on a boat
Fishermen working on a boat at the dock, Tunisia, June 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

The proliferation of trawl fishing boats throughout the region, an aggressive technique that deploys weighted nets and devastates habitats, organisms, and Posidonia meadows in its path, threatens the survival of the ecosystem.

Despite being banned for nearly thirty years by Tunisian law No. 94-13 in waters less than 50 meters deep, this fishing method, locally known as "kiss" (meaning "bag" in Arabic, referring to the shape of the net when dragged), has multiplied due to the indifference of Tunisian authorities.

While taking a cigarette break in the port of Karen, fisherman and mechanic Neji Cheik, with over 37 years in the profession, senses the reasons behind the growth: at the core and in the wallet. "It's a matter of disrespect for nature, and money. Traditional fishing respects breeding seasons, the size of the fish, and other species like turtles, octopuses, dolphins, or Posidonia, but trawl fishing destroys everything. It's a business! It makes ten times more money than other more environmentally friendly methods. Ten times!" According to a study by the German NGO Fishact this year, there are currently 576 trawl fishing boats in Tunisia, the vast majority in the area between Sfax and Kerkennah, a 38.5% increase in just four years.

a fisherman with fishes
Fisherman showing a few fishes in caught,Tunisia, June 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

The numbers don't add up for the sea or those who defend it. For Ahmed Soussi, a Tunisian activist and president of the Kraten Development Association, the actual number of trawl fishing boats is higher because many are not registered or licensed. Soussi believes that the real willingness of the rulers to end abusive fishing practices is crucial for the survival of the Mediterranean. And time is running out. "In two or three years, we will be talking about Kerkennah as a deserted island, as a paradise only good for swimming."

Despite the seriousness of the situation, to understand the plundering of the seabed, one must not only look at Tunisia. According to the State of the Mediterranean Sea report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the Mediterranean is the world's most overfished sea, with 73% of its commercially marketable species being unsustainably caught. But while the Mediterranean has no borders, attempts to solve the problem do. While the European Union has extended a helping hand to fishermen in Italy, Spain, and Greece, providing compensation for the suspension of their activities to allow the sea to rest or offering incentives for the development of sustainable fishing methods, the lack of aid in North Africa has exacerbated the problem. Or worse. While the EU classifies trawl fishing as "harmful to the seabed and the environment" and has presented a plan to eliminate it from all its protected marine areas by 2030, it has no problem accepting Tunisian catches, even if their origin is questionable: 80% of Tunisian fishing, especially shrimp, squid, and octopus, is exported to European markets, mainly in Spain and Italy. The coincidence is suspicious: the primary target of Tunisian trawl fishing boats is shrimp, squid, and octopus.

The lack of control allows the disaster to happen. While trawl fishing by large vessels in deep waters is legal and allowed to export their catches internationally, "kiss" fishing, conducted by boats less than 15 meters long and fishing near the coast, is illegal and, therefore, does not have an export license. A study on trawl fishing by the Environmental Justice Foundation denounced that illegal catches of "kiss" fishing are mixed with legal ones and then exported to European soil. Although the EU, the world's largest importer of fishery products (34% of the total), has control systems in place to prevent illegal fishing from reaching consumers, Eva Lindström, a member of the European Court of Auditors that audits the situation, admitted in 2022 that "despite the measures, these products continue to reach EU citizens' plates. One of the main reasons is that Member States unevenly implement controls and sanctions." The Court identifies reasons such as traceability certificates being issued on paper, making them susceptible to forgery, the poor implementation of relevant sanctions, and the difficulty of cross-referencing the extensive administrative paperwork, which includes over 300,000 certificates and documents. Its conclusion is damning.

"Ensuring a product's legality," it says, "does not guarantee that it is obtained sustainably."

a fisherman on his boat at sunset
Fisherman on his boat at the dock,Tunisia, June 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa

At the Port Sidi Yousef dock, the main port of the archipelago, where dozens of trawl fishing boats rest, the old Abdelaziz Msadak, with 47 years of experience in the trade, barely needs a glance to know there is a central reason behind the disorder: poverty. Economic crises following the Arab Spring in 2011 and the COVID pandemic, along with rising fuel and cereal prices due to the Ukraine invasion, have increased inequality in Tunisia. In addition to inflation, which has raised the price of basic foods by 14.6%, 39% youth unemployment completes a devastating cocktail for the sea: for many, trawl fishing is a way out. "They are not fishermen and know nothing about the sea, explains Msadak; you just have to see how they operate. Since there is no work, they see trawl fishing, which doesn't require knowledge or much physical effort, as an option to make money."

Despite his social analysis, Msadak contradicts himself. They are not all unemployed. He, a seasoned seafarer, switched to trawl fishing three years ago and bought a boat with a friend. "I need the money, and 'charfiya' hardly gives you anything; there are fewer and fewer fish in the sea. But with this boat, I can build a house in four years." Msadak justifies his decision with broken tools. He shows his nets torn by trawl fishing boats and traps for octopuses broken in two. "Years ago, I would come back from the sea with 60 boxes full of fish; now, you return with one or two and small fish."

"Why do I do 'kiss' fishing? Because everyone does it! If I use my nets, they break them. I wouldn't want to do it because we're going to leave our waters barren, but there's no alternative," he says.

When asked if he's not afraid of fines for engaging in illegal activity, Msadak chuckles. He points to the coast guard building. "Is it forbidden? Well, a little money, some fish, tobacco, and you're good to go. No problem."

According to the authorities, there is control, but they are overwhelmed. In the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries of Kerkennah, Dr. Habib Ben Chikha crosses his fingers on the desk before expanding on the threats to the ecosystem beyond "kiss" fishing. He adds others: pollution, rising sea levels, salinization, and temperatures that have attracted invasive species like the blue crab, a predator that devours local fauna. Finally, he admits that "kiss" fishing is a problem and talks about a "lack of control in the ports" and "anarchy," although he qualifies that the coast guard also monitors illegal immigration since the archipelago is just 120 kilometers from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

For Ben Chika, they are overwhelmed. "The number of trawl fishing vessels has skyrocketed on the islands, and it's a social problem," he admits. He estimates that one in three fishermen in Kerkennah engages in "kiss" fishing. Beyond the environmental problem, Ben Chika sees other issues. "The conflict between trawl and traditional fishermen will escalate. There is anger, but at the same time, there are thousands of people working in 'kiss' fishing, and you can't stop it overnight; a global strategy involving all Mediterranean countries is needed. We have a responsibility, but without help, we can't do much."

The time and place where Rami Yahya meets with this journalist, at dawn on the remote beach of Mkaren Khalifa, partly explain why the fire among fishermen has not ignited. You have to wait half an hour until the sound of his engine announces his arrival. Finally, his boat, seven or eight meters long, appears. Rami, who uses a pseudonym because he doesn't want to be recognized, admits with shame that he too has turned to "kiss" fishing. "I know it's frowned upon, but I couldn't take it anymore. Many of us do it in secret, almost all families already do. Yesterday a friend spent the whole day using traditional methods and came back to port with only six kilos of shrimp, nothing else. Look at me: 16 kilos of shrimp, seven cuttlefish, and a crate of blue crabs." He insists that ten years ago, a normal day would end with 60 kilos of shrimp, half a dozen octopuses, and 40 kilos of cuttlefish. "It hurts my heart, but I have a family."

an old walking in a street with a house with a sea graffiti behind
Painting showing the impact of trawling in Kerkennah island, Tunisia, June 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

Not everyone acts the same way. After spending all day at sea, Najt and Farjant have the tired faces of those returning from the battlefield. During the morning, Najt freed two entangled turtles, as well as another one that had died. Although he frowns at the scarcity of catches, he tightens his lips when asked about an alternative. "Trawl fishing for me? Never! I will never do it. Since I was a child, my father and grandfather taught me to work at sea. It's part of my life. I love it like my family. How could I destroy it? I must defend it." Beside him, the elderly Farjant smiles faintly as he listens to his friend while untangling crabs from the net. At the bow, facing the two friends and fishermen, the Tunisian flag waves fiercely in the wind, warrior-like, as if the tattered piece of fabric insisted on reminding us that the fight is not yet over.

This article was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Vanguardia on 10 September 2023 in Spanish. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Fisherman working on his fishing net,Tunisia, June 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

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