The Mediterranean Sea is currently in rapid decline. It is the most overfished sea in the world, with 90% of stocks fished above sustainable levels. In Tunisia, fishing contributes fundamentally to food security and social and economic balance, particularly in regions where it is the main source of income. Nevertheless, the fisheries sector in Tunisia, as well as in other countries of the Mediterranean coast, is confronted with multiple problems, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, overexploitation of fish stocks and pollution, which constitute a real environmental threat by depleting fish stocks and threatening vulnerable marine ecosystems.
At the port of Kelibia, fisherman Mohamed, aged 60, from Teboulba (governorate of Monastir) told Albiaanews: "We have been working in fishing for generations. The sea in the past was generous with an overproduction of fish incomparable to today. I left my region (Teboulba) in search of more fish resources in Kelibia but the reality is shocking. The same conditions: no fish to meet our needs."
He added: "There are many tales about the sea. We start at 4pm and finish at 3am because the only source of our daily needs is fishing. The fisherman is stuck; when he retires, his pension will not even cover his water and electricity bills," he said.
For his part, fisherman Ali at the port of Kelibia, aged 68, lived abroad for years and returned to Tunisia to choose fishing as his only source of income. He said, "It is difficult to provide people with fish, especially when they are scarce and can only be found in remote places and it takes nine hours to get to the fishing grounds, and each trip is expensive."
Ali complained: "There are some people who take advantage of fishermen and the fishing industry by buying equipment and persuading fishermen to use it even if they don't need it, and the offenders are not deterred in any way."
Expressing his fears for the sector, he said that "future generations will have nothing to eat or live on if we destroy the treasure trove of fish today" and called for "the law to be robust and strictly enforced against those who violate it as well as those who turn a blind eye to it."
Furthermore, Ali said that "officials are not letting the sea rest like the Europeans".
"Neither the problems nor the remedies are ever addressed by the officials," he said.
Béchir, another 55-year-old fisherman from the Bizerte region in northern Tunisia, was in the port of Kelibia to find more opportunities in the fishing sector. He said: "This year, in particular, it has been very hot. There are no fish," regretting that "everything is taken by the big boats that leave nothing, using all possible means to find the fish, leaving nothing for the small fishermen who have not been able to take their fair share."
It is these problems that prevent the good production of fisheries resources, with many fishing boats, especially the big ones, being detrimental to small boats," concluded Béchir.
Communication and awareness
In this regard, Yassine Skandrani, an advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Hydraulic Resources and Fisheries of Tunisia in charge of Fisheries and Aquaculture, clarified some issues of the fishing sector in Tunisia in a statement to Albiaanews.
He said that "the fishing industry is part of the cultural and social heritage of many places, including Kerkenah Island. Tunisia has 13,000 sea fishing vessels, so fishing is still important in Tunisia. However, there are setbacks and problems, as in any industry, and dangers that are more prevalent today, such as climate change.
Skandrani also pointed out that "compared to the average of previous years, the sea temperature in July 2022 was extremely high, reaching 31°C, which is causing fish to migrate from the Mediterranean to the northern regions". He added: "The additional reason in the overexploitation of many fish species, especially those with high commercial value, is the result of haphazard fishing by fishers using fishing methods that guarantee good production."
Furthermore, he said that the involvement of the government in guiding and promoting awareness, as well as that of organizations interested in the fishing industry and the marine environment through the use of selective fishing gear is crucial.
"Raising awareness and improving the productivity of fishermen helps to protect the marine environment while paying special attention to the human element," said Skandrani.
"The industrial sector in the Gulf of Gabes and the Gulf of Tunis is a major contributor to marine pollution, which also threatens water and sea resources by causing the decline of fish stocks," he added.
He recalled that "since 2006, Tunisia has started to implement a national policy for the farming of marine species, despite the fact that the majority of its stocks are overexploited."
As a solution to the problems of the fisheries sector in Tunisia, the official said that through satellite and boat monitoring, which reduces control costs, the ministry seeks to regulate IUU fishing, mainly in the Gulf of Gabes and all along the Tunisian coast.
Responding to a question from Albiaanews on the rest at sea, he said that the biological rest at sea is a technique that Tunisia has used since 2009 for trawl fishing boats in the Gulf of Gabes for three months a year (July-August to the end of September) and to finance the boats that need to rest, Tunisia has created a biological rest fund.
At the same time, the Ministry of Agriculture employs 162 security agents in 42 ports, added Yassine Skandrani, adding that the coast guard (Ministry of the Interior), the military guard (Ministry of Defense), maritime customs and the Ministry of Agriculture are responsible for controlling and fining offenders.
In this regard, two 27-metre sentry boats will be delivered to Tunisia by the end of 2023 as part of an international partnership with Japan, to strengthen the regulatory capacity of the Ministry of Agriculture, he said.
Contribution of international organizations
Many organizations have been active over the past decade in implementing development programs, public awareness campaigns and efforts to protect the marine environment, he said.
Valerio Crespi, director of fisheries and aquaculture at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) office in Tunis, also gave a statement to Albiaanews in which he said: "We are heavily involved in providing our national partners with the assistance they need. The industry is in fact plagued by a number of problems and is mainly overexploited, especially in the Gulf of Gabes."
"There is a growing phenomenon of illegal fishing," he noted.
Valerio Crespi said that FAO has had to do studies to address the problems, noting that recently they have been doing a lot of work on social protection when artisanal fishermen have found themselves with a halt in their activities: "the weak point of the sector is the lack of organization," he lamented.
Another problem causing the decline of the fishing sector is the impact of pollution from industrial enterprises and buildings, such as the case of phosphogypsum in the Gulf of Gabes, as well as harmful algal blooms.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) North Africa has expressed concern about "reconciling fisheries and biodiversity and preserving living marine resources, such as the case of artisanal fishing in Gabes", according to an official report published on their website.
WWF North Africa notes that "The Gulf of Gabes region is under considerable pressure, particularly from fishing, which directly impacts certain habitats and species. Indeed, according to WWF, "the majority of seagrass beds are destroyed by the repeated passage of trawlers and other destructive gear."
The WWF believes that "the challenges of preserving coastal areas are still numerous, to protect a rich biodiversity and essential productivity for the communities that depend on them", underlining that "the adoption of more respectful fishing practices is now essential to ensure a direct positive impact on biodiversity, and also on fishing activities. Finally, a healthy ecosystem is also more productive.
On the other hand, there is also the lack of awareness among fishermen of the need to protect marine resources and the environment, as well as overexploitation of marine resources by trawlers.
The situation in the fisheries sector is also aggravated by the lack of coordination and partnership between professionals and the authorities.
The impact of harmful algae
However, with rising sea levels and temperatures, the fishing sector is likely to experience more storms and heat waves. These events will affect the mortality rate of fish populations as well as the development and spread of invasive species and toxic algae according to the National Institute of Science and Technology of the Sea (INSTM) "Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) are a natural phenomenon caused by the mass proliferation of toxic or non-toxic phytoplankton (cyanobacteria, diatoms, dinoflagellates) in aquatic environments..."
These blooms can be harmful to the environment, human health and aquatic life due to the production of harmful toxins and the depletion of oxygen as a result of biomass accumulation.
The alarm bells have been ringing in recent years about the degradation of fisheries resources linked in particular to the intensification of illegal fishing activity, which has threatened the fisheries economy and social welfare, but unfortunately and regrettably, this issue was not taken seriously by decision-makers. On the contrary, messages calling for the fight against poaching of the sea and the preservation of biodiversity have multiplied from one day to the next. And the solutions remain unclear.
No one can deny the environmental threats faced by the fishing sector in Tunisia. For this reason, it is time to act and revise the development strategy of the sector for the next few years and put in place an ambitious action plan to promote the sector, improve the quality of production and ensure its sustainability.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Albiaanews on 24 October 2022 in French. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Kelibia Port, July 2020 / Credit: Saida Zemzemi.