For Ashkelon fisherman Eran Hasid, who has been out on the Mediterranean waters for 15 years, the last two have filled his nets with little more than plastic bags.
“I throw nets and what I catch are nylons and plastic bags that come north from Gaza,” Hasid told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, aboard his small fishing boat. “It can be that I will be out four times and I will catch nothing. Only maybe the fifth time will I get 20 kilograms.”
For Hasid and his colleagues, whose families in some cases have been casting their nets into the Mediterranean for decades, the past few years have been far from auspicious.
The disappearance of copious catches is in large part due to the activity of larger fishing trawlers, which clear nearly everything in their paths – from edible catch to baby fish to protected animal species, a large group of fishermen and environmentalists are arguing, together.
Asked how he makes ends meet, Hasid said, “I don’t want to tell you how I live – I try to cope.”
As a result of the deteriorating conditions, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has launched a “Fishing Responsibly” campaign that insists upon the need for fishing reforms.
Working in collaboration with SPNI are groups from a variety of sectors, including EcoOcean Marine Research and Education, the IsraFish Association, the Israel Fishing Forum, Israel Sport Fishing and members of the Israeli Project for Maintenance Management of Fishing in the Mediterranean Sea.
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“Every day the nature and fish of the Mediterranean are subject to destruction because of the incorrect management of fisheries,” says a letter drafted by SPNI, which has been distributed among Knesset members. “The fish, the fishermen that make a living from them and the public at large are harmed.”
Alon Rothschild, SPNI’s biodiversity policy coordinator and the author of the letter, discussed the campaign and the need for reform with a group of journalists, fishermen and three Knesset members – MKs Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Dov Henin (Hadash) – who gathered at the Ashkelon marina on Thursday.
At the moment, 22 fishing trawlers, operated by 60 people, are “sweeping” and “ensnaring” a multitude of living creatures, including turtles, dolphins and young fish, which have not yet had a chance to proliferate and create their next generation of fish, according to the campaign.
About 100,000 protected animals die annually as a result of trawling and in the past 15 years there has been a 25 percent increase of dead fish thrown back into the water.
Looking at the practices of other countries in the neighborhood, the campaigners have found that there are six times more fish along the Turkish coast, due to much more orderly fishing practices, such as months of respite from fishing.
“We must organize the rules of the game at sea, for example, banning fishing during the fish spawning season, upgrading enforcement and more,” Rothschild’s letter says.
While only a small chunk of fishermen make use of the destructive trawling methods, their operations cause great damage to both the environment and the income of other fishermen, Rothschild said.
Approximately 80% of fishermen, who don’t belong to large companies, no longer go out to sea regularly due to their decreasing income, according to the campaign data.
Long-term damage to the Israeli economy as a result of such harmful practices adds up to approximately NIS 860 million, Rothschild said.
By instituting a reform, Israel would see an increase of 40% in fish catches from the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a 40% increase in potential profits for fishermen, Rothschild said.
Fish caught would be of larger size and greater quality, and there would be a significant reduction in the mortality of young and protected animals that are not meant for commercialization.
The fishermen feel that such an increase in catch availability and profits would boost their livelihood and allow them to stay on the waters.
“We have nowhere else to go, we are 30-40 years at sea already,” said one of the fishermen, David Davidovich.
According to Rothschild, catches from the Mediterranean Sea constitute about 2% of the fish Israelis eat, while fish bred in on-land pools constitute roughly 8%. The rest of the supply comes from imports.
As part of the reform, however, it may be necessary to provide appropriate compensation to the trawlers who would no longer be able to use their equipment, the campaigners acknowledge.
In total, implementing the reform would require an approximate NIS 8 million to 10m. budget, to account for compensations, enforcement and publicity, Rothschild said.
Fishing and environmental organizations have joined together to advocate a reform in the industry, and are requesting that Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir promote legislation to regulate fishing in the Mediterranean.
Although for a long time SPNI leaders and Agriculture Ministry officials were working together to establish such a reform, Rothschild said that about seven to eight months ago progress slowed, and he has yet to hear from the office since.
After learning about the campaign and taking a tour of the area on Hasid’s fishing boat, Lipman, Zandberg and Henin agreed that they would like to promote private legislation on the subject together.
Rather than banning the trawlers entirely, Lipman told the Post that a more realistic version of the bill would prohibit their operation during the months of June, July and August, to allow for proper fish reproduction.
“If we do it that way for even a few years, it will add up,” Lipman said. “It’s going to be a certain explosion.”
The three Knesset members would work in coordination with the SPNI-led campaign, as well as bring relevant professionals to address the issue at the Economic Affairs Committee.
The hope is that by the formation of the next national budget, the money necessary for fish reform would be an integral, built-in part, Lipman said.
Other elements to include would be regulations for sport fishermen as well as enforcement mechanisms against violations, he added.
Although catches from the Mediterranean Sea may be responsible for only 2% of the fish on Israeli plates, increasing that figure to 4% would be significant, Lipman said.
“We have to become self-sufficient,” he added. “This is a real opportunity for us.”
In response to the campaign and the call for reform, Amnon Lieberman, spokesman for Shamir, told the Post that the ministry is in the process of creating a general program for overhauling the fish industry in Israel, which focuses on more than the Mediterranean Sea.
The ministry recently published a tender for a director of the office’s fishing department, he added.
“It would be unwise to do just part of the work and start supporting or promoting these or other programs,” Lieberman said. “That’s why we would like to ask all the organizations, like SPNI and the others involved, to be more patient and let us take care of this in a more general framework.”
Although agreeing that the Knesset members have the right to propose a bill on fishing reform, Lieberman reiterated his hope that they would “be more patient” and allow the ministry to develop the national program. That being said, Lieberman said that the Agriculture Ministry sees a very positive partner in SPNI and the other campaigners.
“We would be glad to cooperate with SPNI under our terms, and our terms are how to see the conceptual idea of developing this industry,” he said.
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