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In Gabes, Tunisia, artisanal fishermen watch fish die

Gabes, Tunisia – It takes about 15 minutes for the first police officer to arrive. No reason is given.

Lakhdar Mahmud’s expression of annoyance is clear. Traditional, artisanal fishermen rose from 3 a.m. near Gabes in southern Tunisia to report the encroachment of large industrial fishing boats on waters designated for small fishing boats, with no response.

No police officer came out for this. He was seen giving an official response while speaking to a reporter.

ID is checked. The conversation continues on the long, deserted beach outside the small town of Ghanouch, where fishermen in small boats have been sailing for as long as anyone here can remember.

For centuries, small wooden boats have sailed from Ghannuch to the Gulf of Gabs to catch whatever fish they can. Now, the waters of the Gulf are said to be the most toxic in the Mediterranean, surpassing the waters of Gaza, Syria and Libya.

Fishing competition has increased

Pollution from 22 hulking industrial plants, unchecked for decades, has ravaged the ocean and poisoned the land. Studies cited by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) show that pollution has led to declines in fish stocks across the bay and a corresponding loss of marine biodiversity.

Lakhdar Mahmud holds a fishing rod
Lakhdar Mahmud was disappointed that no one came when he reported the fishing occupation [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Seagrass or Posidonia, the basis of much of the sea life in the Mediterranean, has been destroyed.

“There are no more fish, they’re all dead,” another artisanal fisherman said in broken English. He pointed to clouds of brown and red mud that tumbled beneath the crashing waves.

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

Lakhdar highlighted the theme that more than an hour in contaminated water is enough to cause cancer.

The route of plastic-strewn waste, or shared taxis, from the central city of Sfax around Gabes, tells a story of its own.

Hugging the bay’s coastline, the pungent smell of burning waste regularly fills cabs, competing with the stench of chemicals and phosphates to offer some indication of what daily life must be like for the region’s residents as industrialization and poverty conspire to kill them. advanced degree.

A 2018 study by the European Commission, the most recent available, confirmed that 95 percent of Gabes’ air pollution can be traced to the state-owned Tunisian Chemical Group. These pollutants include fine particles, sulfur oxides, ammonia and fluoride, all of which have been shown to have direct consequences for human health.

Two men launch a boat into the sea
Below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, clouds of brown and red mud [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

According to local scientists, pollution from the nearby industrial area linked to climate change has left nearly 3 km (about 2 miles) of coastline where nothing lives or grows, so toxic that cancer, premature births and respiratory disorders are considered common. .

Soon, the police returned and in greater numbers. Papers are checked again, radio calls are made to unknown offices and what kind of photography is and is not allowed under the terms of the Tunisian press pass.

Away from the noise of the radio, Sassi and Lakhdar tell the translator that they don’t know how long their small traditional fishing boats and fishing methods will remain financially viable in Gabes. The pressure on them is already intense.

Allied to the environmental pressures are giant trawlers that prey with apparent impunity in waters designated for small fishermen, and the rising cost of living means that, even as the cost of each trip increases, the financial gain from their catch remains constant.

Ignoring Gabes

There is some reason for hope. Among the wastes of the bay, local artisanal fishermen, such as Sasi and Lakhdar, have built an artificial reef from palm leaves.

Despite the project’s small size (1 square km or 0.6 square miles), Mehdi Ic, a WWF marine program manager who partnered with area fishermen on it, says initial results are positive. “Cuttlefish have returned to the area after a long absence,” he said.

Sassy Alaye in a blue button up shirt looking at the camera and smiling
‘I just like to fish,’ said Saucy Alay. ‘I just love the sea’ [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Still, an incredible amount of work remains.

“About 22,000 cubic meters [5.8 million gallons] Polluted water is released into the bay every day,” marine biologist Mohamed Salah told Al Jazeera. Water loaded with phosphogypsum – the waste from fertilizer – that destroys marine life, starves the ocean of oxygen and leads to algal blooms is also loaded with heavy metals and toxins that endanger human life and destroy marine habitats.

“It’s an incredible amount of discharge, but it’s also drawing water from a vital aquifer during a national drought,” Salah said.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The lasting influence of Gabes’ industrial zone has been known since its establishment in the 1970s. The next government promised to take action but did none.

The government came closest in the early days of the revolution when everything seemed possible. A time, Salah describes, when international funding was made available to relocate entire industrial zones inland and rebuild them with modern materials.

However, like so many others in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary history, inspiration for what could have been a groundbreaking project remained empty.

“This initiative has been lost in experimental studies, papers and social projects to improve the lives of people in the area rather than addressing the causes of their ill health,” Salah said.

‘I just love the sea’

One cannot argue that Gabs exist in isolation. Any initiative to free the seabed from dredging from the layers of phosphogypsum covering its surface or relocating the industrial zone itself would come at an eye-watering cost to a country struggling for economic survival.

A possible bailout from the International Monetary Fund remains an ever-distant possibility, while the terms of nearly one billion euros ($1.1 million) in aid provided by the European Union remain uncertain. Meanwhile, state-subsidized food is in short supply, while prices rise and incomes shrink. Tunisia’s international debt is at risk of default, with ratings agency Fitch downgrading the country to CCC- in early June, judging the probability of default as high.

The investment needed to reverse decades of damage to the Gulf region is not a priority for governments struggling to survive.

Split photo with a beached boat on the left and a hand holding a fishing net on the right
Sasi and Lakhdar say they don’t know how long their traditional fishing boats and fishing methods will remain financially viable in Gabes. [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Nationwide, unemployment, a key source of social unrest, sits at around 16 percent. In Gabes, this number rises to 25 percent. Every act counts and the desolation that will be left in the wake of any attempt to relocate the industrial estate will herald a disaster of an equal, if fundamentally different, magnitude.

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

Sitting in a nearby cafe, Sassi recalls his father’s decision to give up a successful career in business to join Gabes fishing.

“I just like to fish,” he says. “It’s a passion that’s inherited.”

“I like the ocean,” he sighed, pausing for a moment to find the right words in English.

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