'The sea has finished'

Abderazzak Joulak has been fishing in the waters near the Tunisian Kerkennah islands since 1978. He uses a technique called charfia, which is a local tradition of passive fishing and is listed by UNESCO as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. This involves creating a barrier in the seabed using palm fronds which capture and then trap the fish.

Words by Steve Trent
Photographs by Environmental Justice Foundation

Charfia is a sustainable way of fishing; the fronds inflict no damage on the sea and it is traditionally only used for a limited period of the year, to allow the fish to replenish and the marine ecosystems to recover in between. Abderazzak used to go out every day to check his charfia cages. He remembers that he used to go out with his father and, using only three cages, they would sometimes need to use a cart to carry the fish home because it was so plentiful. Now, there is hardly anything left. He knows other fishers who have 15-20 charfia cages and will still only come home with a plastic bag full of fish.

“I’m sad because charfia used to make the living of a whole family before. Now, it hardly makes a living for just one person,” Abderazzak told the Environmental Justice Foundation, during our visit to the Kerkennah islands in 2021. Abderazzak now has to work two jobs.

Charfia has become an insufficient means of living because of the proliferation of an illegal and highly destructive fishing technique called kiss trawling. This involves small boats which drag mesh nets – ‘kiss’ meaning ‘bag’ in Arabic – along the seabed in order to catch fish — but also, because of the technique used, anything else that gets in its way. Kiss trawling is a specific method of bottom trawling, which is a problem in sensitive, protected areas across the Mediterranean and around the world. In Tunisia, the most valuable commercial species are octopus, cuttlefish, tuna and shrimps. Each time the mesh nets are dragged along, the vast majority of what is pulled up is then thrown away again, considered bycatch.

Kiss trawling is not just causing catch quantities to collapse; it is also ruining ocean ecosystems. Around the Kerkennah islands, there is a unique and crucial kind of seagrass called Posidonia Oceanica (P. Oceanica). The benefits of this seagrass are myriad. Not only is it an essential nursery for marine wildlife in the Mediterranean, including for endangered species of sharks and marine turtles, and key commercial species, it sequesters carbon at up to 70 times the rate of tropical rainforests, protects Tunisia’s coasts from eroding and enhances water quality.

The local fishers using charfia are as reliant on the seagrass as they are on the fish; without this habitat, there would be no fish to catch. Soon, this might be the case. The kiss trawlers, which are less than 10 metres in length, are designed to be used in shallow depths. When they cast their mesh nets, they not only drag fish out of the water, but also uproot and remove this essential seagrass.  P. Oceanica is, incidentally, protected under the Barcelona and Bern Conventions, which deal with protecting and enhancing the marine environment in the Mediterranean.

Some of the fish caught unintentionally by kiss trawlers is juvenile and hasn’t had the chance to grow to the point where it could be sold as food. Consequently, this catch is sold to be ground into fishmeal, unfit for human consumption. International demand, particularly in Europe, is reason enough for the kiss trawlers to operate all year – unlike charfia, which is seasonal – leaving little chance of the pressure on these precious marine ecosystems around Kerkennah being alleviated.

Hamza Feguir, who works for the Local Union for Fishermen, told EJF that technology has played a role in the rapid expansion of kiss trawling. “Since they got the GPS tracker, [kiss trawlers] became able to come to the shallow and can access the sea rivers and they can access at night and during the morning to places which were impossible for them to access before. They were unable to access these places, but now they can because of the technology of the GPS, they can have access to the places which are lagoons. Now they are competing with the charfia in production,” Feguir explains.

As long as the kiss trawlers exist in these shallow waters and the Tunisian government fails to enforce the law which bans these trawlers, they will continue to fish there until the waters become entirely depleted.

Fisherman Salah Ben Slimane started fishing when he was 15 years old and he is now almost 60. He does not use charfia but is an artisanal fisher, instead using a small boat and nets which do not drag along the seabed. According to Slimane, the situation is becoming impossible. “If we throw our nets, [kiss trawlers] destroy them. They take our cages.”

In Tunisian law, bottom-trawling is illegal in depths under 50 metres, but the law is almost entirely unenforced, to the point where kiss trawlers don’t feel the need to conceal their vessels and equipment. The law also requires vessels to be tracked using a Vessel Monitoring System and have an identification number. However, it is clear from our conversations with fishers that bottom trawling activities around the Gulf of Gabès go unmonitored and unregulated. Moreover, the seagrass P. Oceanica is protected under Tunisian and international law, but this is entirely undermined as long as kiss trawling continues to dredge up the protected species.

Fish from Tunisia is overwhelmingly exported to European Union (EU) countries. If the Tunisian government continues not to regulate illegal fishing around the Gulf of Gabès, it risks the EU banning fish exports from Tunisia and, consequently, entirely derailing the fishing industry in the country.

Slimane laments the government’s lack of action. “The solution? It is hard for them. You can see how the authorities look,” he tells EJF. “Presidents change and the government changes. Our authorities have to solve their own problems first to be able to look after the fishermen.”

EJF’s investigation into kiss trawling in Tunisia reveals that fish illegally caught by kiss trawlers may be imported by EU Member States, in contravention of an EU regulation designed to stop the import of illegally-caught fish. Slimane identifies specific actions which he believes the EU Member States could undertake in order to support Tunisians in better regulating kiss trawling. He believes the EU can financially support Tunisia to aid with surveillance and provision of boats for the army and coastguard to ensure enforcement of regulations. This could give hope to the next generation that there is a future for them in artisanal fishing.

Slimane’s son, Wassim Ben Slimane, left school when he was sixteen years old to help his father who was exhausted and needed support. Slimane told EJF, “I never wanted to be a fisherman but I was obligated because in Tunisia, there is no work.” When he left school, he tried to emigrate to Europe but once he arrived, he was quickly deported.

“I wanted to change my life there because I was fed up with life here.” When Slimane was returned to Tunisia, he started working again as a fisherman with his father. He is now 25 years old and they still work together. As their working hours grow longer and their catches grow smaller, fishing won’t be a sustainable livelihood for father and son in the long term.

Another fisher, who we will call ‘K’, told EJF that when he first started working, they used to get “great catches” but the last year of good production was apparently around 2011. Before this, K says, they could go out for four to six hours and that would be enough for a substantial catch. Now, according to K, they go out for 48-hour trips and can’t be confident they will get “even a fourth” of what they used to.

“Now, what kind of future will I have from the sea? If things continue like this, there will be no future … the sea has finished,” K tells EJF. He explains that he is motivated to migrate to Europe because he can’t make enough money to support his wife, children and family.

Fishing used to be a viable livelihood for Tunisians; now, as young men watch their fathers struggle to make ends meet, the only option left appears to be leaving the country. According to union representative Feguir, “the majority of youth here in Kerkennah don’t find a job to do. People here have only two options. Either leave the island or leave the country.”

A report published in 2022 by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime reveals that many fishers are turning to smuggling, known locally as ‘harrak’, as a means of income. The report also identifies that many fishers are ‘self-smuggling’; they will pool their resources together in order to migrate by boat. The Covid-19 pandemic, which decimated the livelihoods of many fishers, created a spike in migration. According to the report, illegal migration from Tunisia to Europe doubled from 11,789 people in 2020 to 23,328 in 2021.

In July 2023, it was reported that the European Commission was signing off on a deal to provide €1bn in financial aid to the Tunisian government in order to support it during a time of economic crisis. The financial package is also aimed at supporting Tunisia in blocking “irregular” migrants attempting to make the crossing from Tunisia towards Europe and often Italy. €105m will be provided specifically for combatting migration.

To be effective, efforts to stop migration from Tunisia into Europe should address its causes; by improving working conditions and the economy within the country, fewer people will be forced to migrate. By enforcing the legislation which bans kiss trawling, and developing a just transition plan to support kiss fishers to transition away from it, the government would be supporting the existence of a sustainable and long-term fishing community in Tunisia. This would represent a more positive route towards reducing migration by reducing the need. Fewer people would be left with the two options, as Feguir puts it, to either leave the islands or the country.

One retired fisherman called Abderazzak mourns the loss of the fish in the sea and impact on a new generation of fishers. “How can the young fishermen make a living?” he asks. “What will happen to the youth? They all migrated illegally to Italy, they left and died… poor people. How can they make a living here?”

The Tunisian government, the EU and the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) all have an opportunity to change this. Kiss trawling breaches the rules of the GFCM and, as such, the body should adopt an effective compliance mechanism with sanctions in cases of non-compliance across the Mediterranean. Our recommendations to the Tunisian government include reforming its legal framework, including precise definitions of illegal fishing, setting out comprehensive powers of enforcement and inspection and establishing clear requirements for port and vessel inspections. This must be combined with allocating sufficient financial and human resources to enforce the regulations and legislation around illegal fishing – particularly in the governorate of Sfax.

There are specific and feasible steps which the EU can take too. For the European Commission and the EU Member States, a priority is cooperating with the Tunisian authorities in order to ensure full traceability of the supply chain to make sure illegally caught fish doesn’t find its way into EU Member States’ markets. Similarly, those EU Member States – particularly Italy and Spain, which receive the bulk of Tunisian fish – can increase scrutiny of catch certificates for fisheries imports. Combined, the efforts of these three institutions can ensure kiss trawling becomes a thing of the past. This is crucial for the survival of sea life, coastal communities, and the cultural heritage of sustainable charfia fishing that supported them.


Photographs by Environmental Justice Foundation

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