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In Gabes, Tunisian artisanal fishermen watch their fish die | Environment News

Gabes, Tunisia – It takes about 15 minutes for the first police to show up. No reason was given.

The frustration on Lakhdar Mahmoud’s face was palpable. The traditional artisanal fisherman started reporting large industrial fishing boats encroaching on waters designated for small fishing boats near Gabes in southern Tunisia at 3 a.m., but received no response.

No police were called out for this. It wasn’t until he was seen talking to a reporter that it prompted an official response.

ID is checked. The conversation continued on the long, deserted beach outside the small suburb of Ghannouch, where fishermen have been setting sail in small boats for as long as anyone can remember.

Small wooden boats have been sailing from Ghannouch into Gabes Bay for centuries, fishing what they can. Now, the waters of the Gulf are said to be among the most toxic in the Mediterranean, surpassing Gaza, Syria and Libya.

Competition intensifies for dying fish

For decades, pollution from 22 sprawling industrial plants has gone unchecked, damaging the oceans and poisoning the land. Studies cited by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) show that fish stocks throughout the bay have been reduced due to pollution, with a corresponding loss of marine biodiversity.

Lakhdar Mahmoud holding fisherman
Lakhdar Mahmoud frustrated at no one coming as he reports fishing encroachment [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Seagrass, or Posidonia, the cornerstone of much of the Mediterranean’s marine life, was all but destroyed.

“There are no more fish, they are all dead,” said another artisanal fisherman, Sassi Alaya, in broken English. He pointed to clouds of brown and red mud that rolled and billowed beneath the crashing surf.

“Look,” he said, “pollution. You can see it.”

Lakhdar touched on the subject, saying that immersion in contaminated water for more than an hour was enough to develop cancer.

The journey from the central city of Sfax to the plastic-strewn litter around Gabes, or the shared taxi route, tells its own story.

Clinging to the bay’s shoreline, the acrid smell of burning garbage often permeates the cab, competing with the stench of chemicals and phosphates, showing what the region’s residents must be like in their daily lives as industrialization and poverty combine to kill them. Incremental degree.

A recent European Commission study in 2018 confirmed that 95 percent of Gabes’ air pollution can be traced to state-owned Tunisian chemical groups. These pollutants include particulates, sulfur oxides, ammonia and fluorides, all of which have been shown to have a direct impact on human health.

Two people sail the boat into the sea
Beneath the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, brown and red mud churns [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Pollution from nearby industrial areas linked to climate change has left about 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) of shoreline devoid of life or growth, according to local scientists, and is so toxic that cancer, premature births and bronchial diseases are said to be commonplace.

Soon, the police returned, and there were more of them. Check the paperwork again, make a radio call to an unnamed office, and discuss what kind of photography is and isn’t allowed under the terms of the Tunisian press pass.

Far from the crackle of the radio, Sassi and Lakhdar told translators they don’t know how long their small traditional boats and fishing methods will last in Gabes. The pressure on them is already great.

Linked to environmental pressures are large fishing trawlers who poach with apparent impunity in waters reserved for small fishers, while rising costs of living mean that while the cost of each voyage is rising, their The economic returns from fishing have remained the same.

ignore gabes

There are some reasons for hope. Among the ruins of the bay, local artisan fishermen, such as Sassi and Lakhdar, built an artificial reef out of palm fronds.

Despite the project’s small size (1 square kilometer or 0.6 square miles), Mehdi Aissi, WWF’s marine program manager who works with fishermen in the area, says early results are positive. “The cuttlefish have returned to the area after being gone for a long time,” he said.

Sassi Alaya smiling for the camera in a blue button-down shirt
“I just love fishing,” says Sassi Alaya. “I just love the ocean” [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Approximately 22,000 cubic meters [5.8 million gallons] Every day 30% of the polluted water is discharged into the bay,” marine biologist Mohamed Salah told Al Jazeera. oxygen and cause algae blooms, but also contain heavy metals and toxins that endanger human life and destroy marine habitats.

“It’s an incredible discharge, but it’s also pumping water from important aquifers during a drought across the country,” Salah said.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The long-term impact of the Gabes Industrial Zone has been well known since its establishment in the 1970s. Successive governments have promised to act, but have not.

The closest the government came was in the early days of the revolution, when anything seemed possible. Salah describes that international funding was available at the time to relocate the entire industrial area inland and rebuild it using modern materials.

However, like many other projects in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary history, the impetus for what was supposed to be a landmark project ultimately evaporated.

“Initiatives are lost in testing studies, paperwork, and social programs to improve the lives of people in the region, rather than eliminate the causes of their poor health,” Salah said.

“I just love the ocean”

No one can argue that Gabes exists in isolation. For a country struggling for economic survival, any effort to dredge the seabed to remove layers of phosphogypsum covering its surface or relocate the industrial zone itself will be eye-wateringly expensive.

A potential IMF bailout remains a remote possibility, while the terms of most of the nearly 1 billion euro ($1.1 million) aid proposed by the European Union remain uncertain. At the same time, state-subsidized food supplies are in short supply, prices are rising and incomes are shrinking. The looming possibility of default on Tunisia’s international loans led ratings agency Fitch to downgrade the country to CCC- in early June, citing a high probability of default.

The investments needed to ameliorate the decades-long damage to the Gulf are not a priority for a government fighting to survive.

Split photo with beached boat on left and hands holding fishing nets on right
Sassi and Lakhdar say they don’t know how long their traditional boats and fishing methods will last economically in Gabes [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Nationally, unemployment, a entrenched source of social unrest, is about 16%. In Gabes, that number increased to 25 percent. Every job counts, and the desolation left behind by any attempt to relocate an industrial estate portends a disaster on an equal scale, if not at all.

The police are back on the beach, and ironically, they are helping to shape the very story they seem to be trying to suppress. Now seems like a good time to stop losses and retreat.

Sitting in a nearby café, Sassi recalled his decision to abandon a successful business career to go fishing in Gabes with his father.

“I just love fishing,” he said. “It’s an inherited passion.”

He sighed and paused for a moment, trying to find the right words in English, “I just love the sea.”

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