Fishing with Explosives Threatens Libya's Shores

image of a boat in the sea and of an explosion in the water using dynamite
Tripoli, Libya
Fishing with Explosives Threatens Libya's Shores

In Libya, fishermen are resorting to the use of explosives during fishing operations and despite the severe environmental damage that such activities cause, this practice is increasing, according to local reports.  Despite efforts to reduce this emerging phenomenon, explosive substances called “Galatina'' or TNT—a military grade weapon—are being used in fishing operations , which is destroying all marine life upon impact.  

Growing concerns

The fifty-year-old fisherman, Salem Hayder, sits idly on the beach of Al Khoms coastal city reflecting on the state of the sea after witnessing other fishermen using explosives to  capture fish. As he raises his trusted fishing net in front of him, he laments how he has not caught a single fish after his net was torn by explosives weeks prior.

Stretching approximately 1,770 kilometers, Libya boasts a considerable coastline along the Mediterranean Sea,  featuring  various coastal cities and towns including Al Khoms, Misrata, Sirte and Benghazi. Today’s Libyan Mediterranean waters are facing countless dangers, with the once-bountiful seas now depleted by overfishing especially by illegal means.

A picture of sewage flowing into seawaterwith waste
An environmental disaster threatens the coast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. A picture of sewage flowing onto the beaches, depriving Libyans of enjoying the summer / Credit: Islam Alatrash.

Salem learned fishing from his father and has spent more than half of his life living from the sea. "That was the time when the sea water was clean, untainted by contamination, and plentiful to feed everyone," he says, recalling those days.

He continues" A decade ago, the catch was enough for our livelihood. In recent years, it has declined significantly due to the merciless fishing that happens every season. Today, we find a huge number of fish, tons, floating dead above the surface of the sea." 

In today’s Libya, overfishing and destructive fishing is widespread among the fishermen due to the lack of effective control of fishermen using destructive fishing practices whom he describes as “weak-minded.” "Previously, there were laws and strict controls imposed on us to the extent that we were required to use a certain type of net and we were allowed to catch a limited amount of fish every season to preserve the marine life; on the contrary to what is happening today," Salem explains.

All these factors combined impose a huge difficulty on these fishermen who grew up by the sea, who have not known any other profession, and whose eyes seem saddened whilst looking at the water that has been polluted by dynamite fishermen and their destructive fishing practices.

Forty-eight-year-old fisherman Salah Altayeb says that fishing with dynamite has spread widely among the fishermen to the extent that people near the sea think a heavy artillery war is taking place at sea. In their attempt to hide the sound of the explosion, they tend to throw the explosives whenever an airplane is flying by, so it mixes with the sound of the airplane and does not get detected by the authorities. 

Altayeb was one of the people who was affected greatly by the dynamite fishing, to the point he almost died one day when he was fishing. That day, fishermen threw a dynamite package near Altayeb, knocking him unconscious. He was rushed to  hospital, where he spent three months recovering. The fishermen had mistaken Altayeb's movement underwater and the air bubbles he was creating for signs of a large school of fish. The use of explosives is a dangerous practice, as they may kill or amputate the fisherman that uses them. 

Fishermen's safety

Despite the Fishermen Union's efforts to report dynamite fishing to the authorities, these fishermen constantly escape punishment, which negatively affects the efforts to curb the phenomenon.

Khalil Alshebl, a member of the Fishermen Union, is primarily concerned about the devastating impacts of dynamite fishing on the seabed, particularly in the areas from the coast of the Oil Crescent to the coastal city of Al-Khoms. He points out that these regions have witnessed significant damage to their natural habitat, which has been in existence for millions of years. Specifically, he mentions the loss of the sponge population, which plays a crucial role in cleaning seawater, and the disappearance of large areas once covered in seaweed. These changes have resulted from the destructive practice of dynamite fishing in these coastal areas.

Dynamite kills all fish, big and small, indiscriminately.

Alshebl says the explosion covers a radius of 100 to 150 meters, where fish lay their eggs. The eggs die, along with the small and big fish. Even more regrettable is that the fishermen only get 10% of the fish, as most of it sinks to the bottom and only a few float on the surface. They come back in the morning to collect it. Not to mention the dangerous health risks of consuming fish caught through the use of explosives.

Alshebl says, "Thanks to dynamite, we no longer have fish in our sea. Most species have disappeared. Years ago, we had more species that we no longer see today."

He also points out the importance of updating Libya's fishing laws, which were adopted in the 1960s, to ensure that punishments are effective and deter violators. This modernization is necessary due to the spread of weapons and vehicles, such as four-wheel drive vehicles, which have enabled hunters to reach remote and vast areas of natural wealth.

The hunting and fishing law in force in Libya since 1989 regarding the regulation of marine wealth stipulates that ‘it is absolutely forbidden to use explosive materials to fish in marine water by means of dynamite, toxic materials, drugs, or material harmful to public health or by any material that harms sea creatures without discrimination. The law specifies a fine for the violator that is no longer compatible with the requirement of time and current reality. 

This law imposes penalties on individuals involved in poaching operations or the use of explosives for fishing, violators may face fines ranging from not less than one 1000 LYD (200 euro) to not exceeding 5000 LYD( 1000 euro).

A fisherman is seen cutting fish and displaying them for sale in the fish market in the Libyan capital, Tripoli
A fisherman is seen cutting fish and displaying them for sale in the fish market in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, October 2023 / Credit: Islam Alatrash.

The Libyan Environmental expert Ibrahim Alrabaie proposed a law to preserve the marine environment, as it is no longer a violation but rather a criminal offense. Alrabaie says most of the countries, especially the Mediterranean countries have adopted modern laws to punish these crimes, some have even doubled the penalty to capital punishment, as in Egypt, Greece, and Jordan. While in Libya, it does not exceed the penalty of a misdemeanor. 

The environmental expert points out that Libya since the beginning of last summer has lost thousands of fish. Fishing by explosives kills and injures dozens of people annually. However, the authorities do not provide any statistics on this matter. 

There is a drastic decline in fish population, especially species like parrotfish, rabbitfish, and groupers, which are vital for the ecosystem. Even the fish that are supposed to be abundant, such as mullets and sardines, are becoming scarce. This situation indicates a critical threat to these species, many of which are on the brink of extinction.

In an interview with DW from the capital Tripoli, he added that there are multiple threats looming on the horizon for the marine environment, not only fishing with explosives, but also solid waste and wastewater. The solid waste greatly affects marine life, and the wastewater that pumps directly into the sea in Tripoli has made it no longer swimmable.

Alrabaie is happy about the establishment of the Environmental Police, which will follow up on environmental violations and deter all land and sea violations that affect the environment in our country.

Environmental impact and marine wealth at risk

One of the most prominent effects of explosives on marine plants is that “Galatina”  TNT explosions raise the pressure of water, which results in a sudden increase in the water temperature. This interaction between the nitrate and phosphate found in the water forms a toxic material.

The damage extends to the killing of many non-fish creatures, which significantly affects the marine ecosystem. These effects continue to break down seabed rocks and destroy sea plants.

DW could not obtain further clarifications from the Ministry of Marine Wealth in the Interim Government of National Unity, as officials declined to comment on the matter. 

Seven years ago, religious authorities issued a Fatwa prohibiting the use of explosives in fishing for the damages that it causes to the environment and humans. However, this Fatwa appears to have had little effect to deter illegal fishers.

Undersea photos show dead fish under the sea after being caught with explosives
Undersea photos show dead fish under the sea after being caught with explosives, October 2023, Tripoli, Libya / Credit: Islam Alatrash.

The deteriorating situation on the Libyan shores is likely to remain unchanged for now. This is because the conflicts and wars that have been engulfing the country for years have distracted the authorities from what is happening at sea. Until the situation changes, the uncontrolled and unaccountable use of “Galatina”  TNT explosives will continue to destroy marine life.

The use of  TNT in Libya can be considered an anomaly in destructive fishing practices, even when compared to other countries which also have dynamite fishing, such as Ghana, Lebanon and Syria where they use agricultural fertilizers to make the explosives. Being a military grade weapon, often used by the US military, TNT is considered more toxic than dynamite which makes it less available, as it is even too toxic to make. With populations ingesting fish caught using this destructive practice,  the long-term health implications remain unknown, but extremely concerning.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in DW on 05 November 2023 in Arabic. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Archival image of dynamite fishing / Credit: Picture-alliance.

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