The heroines of the Tunisian shores, women fishers on foot, also called clam collectors, are facing an unprecedented environmental and socio-economic crisis. As clam stocks are dwindling alarmingly, the authorities have taken the decision to suspend the harvesting of these shells for three years. The figures are striking: a dizzying drop, from 1,547 tons in 2016 to just 44 tons in 2020. This reality plunges the women of this noble profession into a critical socio-economic situation.
Clams in peril: Shoreline heroines face an uncertain horizon
"Collecting clams has always been a core part of my life since I was a child. I inherited this precious tradition from my mother and my grandmother. But now I wonder if there are still clams left in the sea?" says Khadija Nemri, 51, a “Laggata” woman collector from Gabès for the past 30 years.
The weather in Zarat exudes a charm quite characteristic of southern Tunisia: a light breeze that caresses the skin and rays of sunshine that illuminate the beach. In Zarat, when the low tide comes at 11 a.m., many of these shore fisherwomen, also known as laggata, gather on the beach. They look for the two small holes present in the sediment, a sign of the presence of clams, locally called El Gafella. Draped in their traditional Mdhalla hats, shod in rubber boots and armed with a bucket and a sickle, locally called El Menjel, they prepare for their quest.
However, a very different reality awaits them. “Are you aware that clam fishing has been banned in these areas for three years?” says the local authority surveillance officer firmly, not failing to constantly call these women to order, thus prohibiting them from any collection activity.
Since 2016, the clam industry in Tunisia has been hard hit by a significant drop in national production. According to data from the General Directorate of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DGPA), the stock of clams has declined dramatically, from 1,547 tons in 2016 to just 44 tons in 2020. In coastal areas, these shellfish play an important socio-economic role. They represent a symbol of stable income and an activity that supports more than 4,000 Tunisian women according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). However, today, this category of fishworkers finds itself trapped between environmental and economic issues.
On the Mediterranean coasts of Tunisia, only a few hours pass between the first harvest of clams, their sale on the spot and their export, mainly to Europe. The Tunisian clam, renowned for its taste, sits on restaurant menus, especially in Rome and Madrid.
However, despite this geographical proximity between the countries, a considerable gap separates the Tunisian fisherwoman from the Italian or Spanish restaurateur. While the first harvests these precious shells for just over 1 euro per kilo (i.e. 3.2 Tunisian dinars), the second makes profits 10 to 15 times higher.
Tunisian clams: Between natural disaster and human actions
Over the years, the precious fishery resources of the Tunisian Sea, once rich in octopus, shellfish, sea grass and fish, have suffered considerable damage. Harmful practices such as illegal fishing and unregulated trawling are the cause. Unfortunately, traditional artisanal fishing, which played a crucial role in the preservation of marine biodiversity, is gradually disappearing. In addition, Tunisian waters face another major problem: pollution. The offshore exploitation of hydrocarbons in the South region and the pollution from the chemical group in the Gulf of Gabes further aggravate the situation.
Chadlia Trabelsi, 51, a clam fisherwoman in Zarat, tells us of the harmful effects of this form of pollution: "During our collection, we are sometimes confronted with a disgusting smell emanating from the clams, in particular when the pollution coming from Ghanouch is felt."
The deterioration of the marine ecosystem is of concern, jeopardizing not only marine species, but also the livelihoods of sea-dependent communities.
Najia El Ayedi, another clam collector in Zarat, says her husband, a fisherman by profession, sees the devastation caused by irresponsible trawling practices every day. He strongly advises our children against engaging in this profession, she adds.
The repercussions of this crisis do not spare the Laggata community. The alarming decrease in the clam population in the Gulf of Gabès, southern Tunisia, particularly in Zarat, where production is gradually decreasing, is causing concern among scientists, fishing professionals and local authorities. Overexploitation, directly linked to a significant increase in fishing effort, is often identified as one of the main factors contributing to the deterioration of the clam stock in Tunisia.
Ines Houas Gharsallah, researcher and assistant professor in the fisheries science laboratory at INSTM, points out: "Any activity carried out in an anarchic manner, without regulation or monitoring, can only have a harmful impact on natural resources, and unfortunately, it is the case for the clam, where the collection persists even after its ban."
Climate change: an obvious threat to the clams
The bivalve faces another threat: climate change. The effects of this phenomenon are felt in a brutal and alarming way in Gabès: a sudden rise in water temperature and rapid acidification of the sea, resulting from human activities near the region.
Gharsallah, highlighting the impact of overexploitation on the decline of the clam stock, in no way underestimates the importance of climate change in this decline. According to her, this environmental crisis is putting additional pressure on coastal habitats, which are subject to the incessant fluctuations of the tides. These cumulative factors pose a serious threat to the future of clams.
Professionals and scientists carefully monitor the acidity level of the water, which poses another threat to clams.
“The effects of climate change, such as temperature rise and acidification of seawater, have a significant impact on the resilience of clams. High temperatures directly affect the survival of these marine organisms, while water quality plays a crucial role in the formation of their shells. Indeed, clams absorb the elements present in their aquatic environment to build their shell over time,” explains Gharsallah.
By absorbing a third of global CO2 emissions, the ocean pH decreases, causing a major disturbance known as “ocean acidification”. This phenomenon is deadly for mollusks such as clams, because it reduces the availability of the calcium molecules that these bivalves need to make their shells.
The weakening of clam shells is confirmed by the women collectors of Zarat in Gabès. Khadija Nemri, one of them, shares her observation:"Over the past ten years, when I manage to collect a few specimens of clams, I find that their shells are thin and break easily."
Toxins at sea: what clams tell us about the ecological state of the area
How aquatic organisms respond to climate change has become one of the most active areas of research. Scientists are trying to understand the repercussions of this phenomenon on marine resources, in a context where food security is at stake. A study carried out at the Radio-ecology Laboratory of Istanbul University brings new advances in this field by using isotopic techniques to analyze the consequences of climate change, in particular ocean acidification, on marine resources.
The increase in ocean acidity has significant effects on marine organisms, which are of major socio-economic importance. Through the use of nuclear techniques, researchers have found that some organisms absorb and accumulate more radionuclides or metals in response to ocean acidification. These elements slow down the development of organisms or require more abundant food for their survival.
The study conducted at Istanbul University, using radiotracers, found that clams exposed to slightly acidified seawater absorbed twice as much cobalt as under balanced control conditions. In contrast, other marine organisms, such as oysters, show greater resilience.
These results show that ocean acidification poses a risk not only to clams, but also to consumers. Indeed, cobalt is a heavy metal that the human body needs in minute quantities, but which is toxic in high concentrations. This phenomenon can have even wider socio-economic repercussions on Mediterranean coastal populations, who depend on seafood products both as a source of food and as a commodity for export to European countries.
An uncertain future: In search of alternatives for the Laggata
The collection of clams is subject to strict regulations established by the Ministry of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources. Under Law No. 94-13 of January 31, 1994, which sets the period authorized for the collection of clams from October 1 to May 15, the Ministry of Agriculture issued an order on September 20, 1994 to govern this activity. This collection period has been carefully selected to preserve the reproduction phase of these marine animals and guarantee the sustainability of their population. However, the authority concerned reserves the right to modify the opening date of the campaign until November 15, taking into account the bioclimatic particularities, the demands of the profession and the results of the scientific studies carried out on the production sites. .
But faced with these rules, do women clam collectors really respect all these prohibitions?
The situation is complex. On the one hand, these women are exploited by unscrupulous intermediaries who profit from their hard work. On the other hand, the authorities have issued strict bans on the collection of these shells, thus plunging these women into a deep crisis. This worrying situation is exacerbated by the environmental, economic and social changes affecting the Tunisian seas.
Since suppliers continue to encourage women to collect clams and pay them, and thus manage to cover their expenses and the needs of their families, they are not ready to give up this practice.
“If the clam decline is real, why do other people continue to profit from it?” asks Halima Souissi, a Laggata woman in Kerkennah, expressing the concerns faced by these women collectors.
Despite this, these women have become aware of the need to rely on their own resources and to work in accordance with laws and regulations in order to avoid any legal action. They have engaged in development projects aimed at strengthening the socio-economic capacities of vulnerable populations, with the aim of finding lasting solutions to their dilemma.
Among these projects is the NEMO KANTARA project, which focuses on the stabilization and socio-economic development of Tunisian coastal regions. This project has partnered with the Groupement de Développement Agricole et de la Pêche (GDPA) in Zarat, to provide an alternative to collecting clams, which is in danger of running out. In this context, this initiative has facilitated the manufacture and design of metal traps intended for the fishing of blue crabs, thus offering an alternative activity to women collectors. Another project, the FAIRE project for women workers in agriculture, works to support the socio-economic empowerment of women workers in agriculture and fishing in Tunisia. It also aims to convert the clam collectors to other sectors, such as agriculture and livestock, where many women have already demonstrated their independence, their sense of initiative and their leadership within their projects.
These initiatives highlight the need for enhanced monitoring to preserve this valuable resource, as well as raising awareness among female clam collectors and promoting sustainable practices. We are currently in a race against time to ensure the long-term survival of these iconic shells of our seas.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in BlueTN on 31 May 2023 in French. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity. BlueTN is one of the Mediterranean Media Initiative media partners.
Banner image: Clams collected by fisherwomen, Tunisia / Credit Inoussa Maïga.