August 09, 2011 12:17 AM
By Brooke Anderson

TYRE, Lebanon: Maher Abu al-Ainein says that 20 years ago life as a fisherman was good. Today, he says the depletion of marine life, as a result of pollution, bad fishing practices and no government control, is putting his livelihood at risk.“

Like my father and grandfather, I’ve been a fisherman my whole life,” he says. “Before, the sea wasn’t like this. I could provide for my family. Now, it’s almost better not to work.”

Ainein, like most of his peers in the sleepy fishing town of Tyre, struggles every day to make ends meet and sees a bleak future unless things change soon.

Sitting with him on a small fishing boat on a slow day, Khalil Taha, the head of the fishermen’s syndicate in the south, says his profession has been in decline ever since the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War, when post-war reconstruction became centered on the capital and the country’s traditional fishing cities – Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Tripoli – lost their prominence.

After that, he says, syndicates became divided into religious affiliations and political parties, making it difficult for them to unite to defend their interests.

The depletion of marine life is a worldwide problem, caused by pollution, unsustainable fishing practices and a lack of environmental awareness. But in Lebanon the issue is particularly critical because of the country’s small coastline and lack of environmental regulations.

Compounding the problem, recreational fishing has become increasingly destructive through the years, with large nets catching all nearby marine life in shallow waters, including the minnows which normally feed larger fish. Spearfishing, in which scuba divers use elastic spearguns to kill their prey, has become increasingly popular in south Lebanon over the past 10 years.

In addition, the number of fishermen in Tyre has jumped from around 100 to over 600 in the past decade, as lack of job opportunities in the area has led many to turn to fishing, in spite of the depletion of marine stocks – making it all the more difficult to earn a living as a fisherman. As a result, more fishermen are now competing for fewer fish along Lebanon’s relatively short 225-kilometer coastline.

“The problem with this is that it can lead to a vicious cycles,” says Wael Hmaidan, executive director of IndyACT, a Beirut-based environmental NGO. “If fishermen find fewer fish, then they will try every method to get more fish. Other methods might include more unsustainable fishing, [which will lead to] fewer fish, and so on.”

One of these methods, says Michel Bariche, author of a 2008 Greenpeace report on Lebanon’s marine life, is for fishermen to catch fish before they reach adulthood, hindering their natural lifecycle.

“When you go to the market, you see baby fish, and people have gotten used to the small fish. It’s sad because we’re using all our resources,” Bariche says. “Everyone wants to catch everything.”

He adds, “People think: If I don’t catch this school of fish, then my neighbor will catch it.”

Lebanon’s last fishing law was passed by the Agriculture Ministry in 1927, back when fish were in plentiful supply and the sea was clean. Now experts say a new law is urgently needed, before it’s too late.

“We need regulations and awareness, and the attitudes of people need to change,” says Bariche.

Among the recommendations in his 2008 report – which have yet to be implemented – was the establishment of designated marine reserves spanning the coast, which would have legal protection against fishing. The first would be Byblos, located 40 kilometers north of Beirut, which hosts an abundance of marine life.

“Habitat destruction is certainly one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Lebanese fishery resources,” reads the Greenpeace report. “Some habitats can be restored with proper supervision while other changes are irreversible and no degree of future management will be able to undo the damage.”

Hmaidan agrees, adding that he believes overfishing in Lebanon is not necessarily the problem, but rather unsustainable fishing.

“It is not the amount of fish we get out, but how we get it out,” he says, noting that Lebanon is one of the few Mediterranean countries that does not have industrial fishing.

He agrees that designated protected areas would definitelybe a major step in the right direction.

“Closing the areas for fishing does not necessarily mean fewer fish for fishermen,” he says. “In the long term, the fish population will bounce back, and fishermen will be able to fish more in a smaller area.”

Environmentalists estimate that more than 90 percent of fisheries are threatened around the world. Scientists predict that if we continue business as usual, there will be no fisheries by 2050. More than 2 billion people depend directly or indirectly on marine resources for their livelihood.

As the Greenpeace report notes, “The actual costs to the environment, tourism, fishery and human health may be far more expensive to Lebanon than implementing new strategies by governmental bodies.”

IndyACT’s Hmaidan agrees that the future benefits of taking action now will more than outweigh the costs. “There are only small pockets of fisheries along the coast,” he says. “If these collapse, then fishermen in the country will need to find an alternative source of livelihood.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 09, 2011, on page 12.

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