The Ravages of Dynamite Fishing in Lebanon

Sitting in the courtyard of his home in the port district of Tripoli, Sayed [*], a fisherman in his sixties, enjoys a cup of coffee prepared by his wife. The crutches that have been with him since a violent car accident are lying on the floor. In his damaged mouth, where only two teeth remain, is a cigarette, which he soon lights. It was with this that he demonstrated the effect of fire on ammonium nitrate.

He took a handful of green powder from a black bag and placed it on a plate. His family watched the gloomy spectacle. "This is what I use to make my dynamite," he explains earnestly. The old man pours the nitrate into a piece of plastic, which he shakes mechanically. His wife brings him some thread to tighten it up. All he needs now is the detonator to detonate the homemade mixture.

Sayed is a former dynamite fisherman, an illegal practice. Although he has not forgotten how it was made, he insists that he has withdrawn from the market.

All that's missing from this stick of dynamite is the detonator so that it can be used as a small bomb in Lebanese waters
All that's missing from this stick of dynamite is the detonator so that it can be used as a small bomb in Lebanese waters, Lebanon, November 2023 / Credit: Itzel Marie Diaz for Reporterre.

Land of the cedar but also of the sea, Lebanon is home to forty-four ports and a predominantly artisanal fishing industry. Dynamite fishing has evolved with the tumult of history. During the civil war (1975-1990), sticks of dynamite were commonplace.

Today, it is in the Palestinian camps, such as Nhar-al-Bared, 15 kilometers north of Tripoli, that you can find them ready to use. Other fishermen, like Sayed, prefer to make their own. Although the recipes differ, they all use ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer sold in any farm shop and the cause of the explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020.

Homemade dynamite also requires a detonator, which is banned from public sale but easily available on the black market. As for the rest, everyone has their own tricks up their sleeves. Some add sugar, others charcoal. With the economic crises of recent years, techniques have become even more refined. Artificial reefs made from car wrecks have been created to create nurseries for fish.

Ammonium nitrate powder is used by dynamite fishermen along the Lebanese coast.
Ammonium nitrate powder is used by dynamite fishermen along the Lebanese coast. This illegal practice is as dangerous for the seabed as it is for humans themselves Lebanon, November 2023 / Credit: Itzel Marie Diaz for Reporterre.

Others, saving fuel, swam out to sea pushing a floating tire loaded with dynamite and bombarded schools of fish. A 50 kg bag exploding at a depth of 60 meters has a radius of 50 meters and can harvest up to 4 tons of fish. After the explosion, all the fishermen have to do is wait for their booty to come up.

"The fish are killed by the shock wave, which causes hemorrhagic lesions in the gills," explains Rami Khodr, Technical Director at RBML Food Labs in Beirut. Dynamite fishing is particularly effective in the poor regions of North Lebanon.

Surviving poverty

Sitting under a tin shelter with his fishing mates, Amir [*], aged thirty-four, is having a hard time of it. He has not been able to go out to sea because of unstable weather conditions. He lives in Aabdeh, in the Akkar region. The Syrian border is only a dozen kilometers away. The surrounding area is poor and neglected, and the scent of fish and diesel fuel wafts through this small fishing port.

The fish are getting smaller and there are fewer and fewer of them," he says sadly. Sometimes we have to go further out to find them, but that costs a lot of diesel. So, for him, it's not surprising that some people are turning to illegal fishing.

A two-hour drive north of Beirut, Tripoli is no longer the flourishing Phoenician city of yesteryear. The city was already poor before the economic crisis, but since 2019, Tripolitans have joined Syrian and Palestinian refugees in misery.

As day breaks over this desperate city, the port is bustling with activity. The fishing boats have returned from their nights of hunting. On the market stalls, dozens of marine species lie in tubs of ice. It's hard to guess which have been captured with explosives. "Dynamite? No dynamite here!" assures one of the vendors, clearly shocked by the question.

"He lit a cigarette and the dynamite went off"

If the pandemic followed by the explosion in the port of Beirut had already weakened the country, the financial crisis that began in 2019 and is still ongoing has dashed much of the hope of the Lebanese. The country is suffering from inflation, which accelerated at the beginning of the year to reach 270% year-on-year in April 2023. This crisis has plunged more than 80% of the Lebanese population into precarious living conditions, with half of them living in extreme poverty.

To try and get by, people are working day and night. For example, fishermen no longer just belong to the sea. They are also taxi drivers, café owners and bus drivers. Many have had to sell their boats. "It's sad, because fishing is a family tradition, a heritage," says Amir.

fish on a market
On the market stalls of Tripoli, it is difficult to determine which fish have been caught using dynamite, November 2023, Lebanon / Credit: Itzel Marie Diaz for Reporterre.

Bassem is another fisherman from the port of Aabdeh. Sitting on a plastic chair in the hot sun, he recounts his father's accident when he lost seven fingers handling dynamite: "He was at sea. It was raining and windy. He lit a cigarette and the dynamite exploded. Since then, he has stopped using it.

According to the Safadi Foundation, which develops sustainable projects in Lebanon, 5% of fishermen use dynamite. In Tripoli, this technique has declined for several years in a row before increasing again in 2019," says Samer Fatfat, a consultant at the Safadi Foundation. On the beaches of Akkar, it has remained constant.

Corruption and omerta

On the 30 kilometers of coastline between Tripoli and Syria, the army is quickly overwhelmed. At the port of Al Mina in Tripoli alone, more than 1,800 fishermen are registered. These wooden motorboats, less than 7 meters long, enter and leave the port by means of a simple visual check by the army from the dyke.

While the authorities clearly lack the resources, not even having enough fuel to arrest the illegal fishermen, they may also be in league with the outlaws. In the port of Al Mina, the illegal fishermen are known to all, but the omerta hangs over anyone who dares to denounce them.

As for the president of the fishermen's union, criss-crossing the coastal road and the fish markets in his shiny black Mercedes, he brushes the question aside: "It's not our job to arrest fishermen, and if they are arrested it's only for a few days in prison." Yet corruption is costing illegal fishermen dearly. According to one of them, 40% of the revenue goes to bribery, with the remaining 60% shared between him and his crew.

However, a law governing the rules of fishing in Lebanon has existed since 1929. Dynamite is strictly forbidden. But like a country that has been without a president for a year, the state is crumbling and the laws are not being enforced.

boats on a port in Lebanon
The small fishing port of Aabdeh, in the Akkar region, is one of the poorest areas in Lebanon, November 2023 / Credit: Itzel Marie Diaz for Reporterre.

Some fishermen are even bombing the Palm Islands nature reserve, opposite Tripoli, where all human activity is theoretically prohibited. The explosions not only damage the seabed, but also contribute to the depletion of fish stocks, with no distinction being made between large and small fish.

A toxicological analysis carried out by RBML Food Labs, which tested three fish from a market in Tripoli, found that the insides of the fish contained large quantities of ammonium. But because of the massive use of this fertilizer in agriculture, it is difficult to know whether this pollution comes from dynamite or from land run-off.

Every day, around a hundred bombs are dropped into Lebanese waters by fishermen, descendants of the Phoenicians who were reputed to be good navigators. In these battered lands, the sea is a constant witness to tragedy. Each time a conflict has led to the closure of the sea, fishermen have returned to a sea rich in fish. But the natural cycle is constantly caught up in the death spiral.

amononum being lighten up
Sayed demonstrates how to make a stick of dynamite. Lebanon, November 2023 / Credit: Itzel Marie Diaz for Reporterre.

Note: Some names have been changed upon request. 

This article was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Reporterre on 22 November 2023 in French. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Sayed, a former dynamite fisherman, comes from Tripoli, one of the poorest towns around the Mediterranean ebanon, November 2023 / Credit: Itzel Marie Diaz for Reporterre.

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