Fishermen’s necks in a noose
Sophie-Anne Bisiaux (Migreurop) and Marco Jonville (FTDES)
“The sea is freedom; but today, we are trapped there” laments Slah Eddine Mcharek, president of the association, Le Pêcheur pour le développement et l’environnement (Fishermen for Development and the Environment) in Zarzis. Their plans are ambitious: effective protection of the sea’s resources and the development of sustainable and responsible small-scale fishing. The obstacles however, are considerable: caught between the increasing scarcity of fish reserves, threats to the fishermen’s safety, the reduction of the fishing zone, as well as attempts at criminalisation for rescuing migrants at sea, the fishermen can feel the noose tightening around their necks.
Beyond the small town of Zarzis, where luxury hotels sit side by side with the corpses of the shipwrecked and the fishermen struggling to survive, Slah Eddine’s story reminds us of the importance of justice for both humans and the environment.
The sea, national rubbish dump
A new phenomenon has been on the increase in recent years: waste plastic invading the shores and littering the places where fishermen work. Lacking a functioning system for collecting domestic waste and with little public awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution, waste plastic is piling up in the city’s waterways. The plastic ends up washing down to the shoreline and sea, to such an extent that the fishermen are now demanding that plastic bags be banned.
In addition to the problem of domestic rubbish, there is also the problem of industrial waste. Slah Eddine brings out a map of the Mediterranean basin and points to the sebkhet el melah (the salina or salt marsh) of Zarzis’ coast. The salina belongs to Cotusal, the colonial remains of a French company that has, for decades, exploited Tunisian salt resources within the framework of highly favourable concessions – concessions that have not been renegotiated since Independence. The production of salt in this region, in addition to increasing the salinity of farmland in the area, also releases salt treatment waste products to the sea. Above all, the sea around Zarzis is polluted by the industrial waste (notably phosphogypsum) of the Groupe Chimique Tunisien, (Tunisian Chemical Group), and by the untreated sewage of ONAS (the Office National de l’Assainissement – the National Sanitation Office). The latter does not treat industrial and domestic wastewaters as it is supposed to do, especially on the island of Djerba. While a proportion of these waters is treated in an inefficient and inadequate fashion, the rest is released into the sea without any treatment at all.
An Environmental Equilibrium Disturbed
For the living creatures that inhabit these waters, the mixture of industrial discharges, domestic rubbish and sewage is a terrible combination. “The sea has become an open-air toilet,” says Slah Eddine, pointing this time to two fish drawn on a poster. One is a sea bass; the other the sea bream. “These fish no longer live in the area of the sea where the factories discharge their waste,” he explains. The pollution of this coastline destroys the equilibrium essential for the survival of marine fauna and flora.
Species reproduction has become difficult if not impossible, leading to the extinction of several varieties of fish, especially the cartilaginous. Sponges are suffering from the effects of global warming and have been showing signs of disease for several years, to the despair of those families who live from collecting and selling them. In 2017, following a significant increase in sea temperature (to 24°C / 75°F at 67m below sea level!), numerous sponges died due to their susceptibility to environmental changes, or to an epidemic boosted by the increase in water temperature.
The build-up of pollution has resulted in the suffocation of all forms of life in the waters around Djerba and Zarzis, particularly in the almost closed Gulf of Boughrara. The fishermen estimate that 90% of fish and shellfish have disappeared in this area the last ten or twenty years, depriving many people, especially the young and women, of a stable income. While the fishermen of Gabès receive compensation for the pollution and come to fish on the coast of Zarzis, the fishermen of the town itself receive nothing despite being similarly affected.
Further north, on the Sfaxian coasts, another phenomenon occurred twice last year (2019), in June and November, particularly noticeable in Jbeniana, where the sea turned red, leading to a high mortality among the fish. The phenomenon was explained by the presence of microalgae leading to eutrophication of the sea, i.e. depriving it of oxygen. The official story goes no further and leaves the proliferation of these microalgae unexplained. Similar phenomena are known in other parts of the world however, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, where the proliferation of algae is due to excess phosphate and nitrogen fertilizer in the sea, and/or the discharge of sewage (which produces excessive concentrations of organic matter). It is therefore highly likely that the concentrated phosphate discharges of the Groupe Chimique Tunisien in Gabes and Sfax, along with other industrial and household waste discharges and/or the discharges of agricultural fertilizers, through the wadis are at the origin of the phenomenon.
The Price of Daesh
While some species are disappearing, others are proliferating excessively. The Asian blue crab, nicknamed “Daesh” by local fishermen because of its invasive and destructive potential, is the best example of these. This species, which appeared at the end of 2014 in the Gulf of Gabès, has rapidly proliferated off the coast, feeding on fish that until then had been the livelihood of local fishermen. “Daesh destroys everything: sea bream, prawns, cuttlefish… All the good fish!” they exclaimed. The voracity of the blue crab has aggravated the economic problems of many fishermen. If the flesh of this invasive species appeals to certain palates –an export market directed towards Asia and the Arabian Gulf is certainly developing – the inhabitants of Zarzis who live on small-scale fishing, cannot make a living out of blue crabs. “One kilo of sea bass or bream sells for 40 dinars; but you’re lucky if you get 2 dinars for a kilo of Daesh!” maintains one of the association’s fishermen.
The calculation is quickly done, especially since blue crabs make fishermen pay much more for the upkeep of their equipment, since the crabs’ claws often rip the nets. “Before Daesh arrived, we changed the nets about twice a year; now it’s four or five times a year!” says one of them.
Stranded in a Marine Desert
The fishermen hammer home that “the fishing area of Zarzis has become a Sahara, a real desert.” As a result of the international division of the Mediterranean, fishermen from Zarzis are restricted to their coastal waters, in which there are fewer and fewer fish as a result of environmental pollution and overfishing by factory ships.
“Before 2005 and the 5+5 dialogue, we had access to productive fishing areas, but since then other countries have expanded their marine territory.” Libya established an exclusive fishing zone in 2005, thereby preventing access to Tunisian fishermen. At the same time, Tunisia too set up an exclusive economic zone, but in contrast to the Libyan zone, allowed foreign vessels to fish within it. Egyptian trawlers add up to the Tunisian boats (notably from Sfax) which can no longer fish in the rich Libyan waters. The Egyptian trawlers even enter Tunisian territorial waters with total impunity. In addition to the environmental stresses described above, the waters of southern Tunisia are thus being significantly overfished.
Limits of the different Tunisian maritime zones:
The official borders however do not correspond to the area where Tunisian fishermen can actually fish, which is in fact much more restricted and suffers from encroachment by the Libyans. On the maritime map he has displayed in front of him, Slah Eddine shows the effective area where Zarzis fishermen can fish. As he tightens his fingers, he illustrates the expansion of the Libyan fishing zone to the detriment of the Tunisian. But then why does this shift in the maritime borders not appear in any international text or agreement? Are there secret treaties? Have the Libyan coastguards claimed the right to enter Tunisian waters? Or have Tunisian fishermen decided not to enter the buffer zone due to fears for their safety?
Fishermen under Fire from Libyan militias
In addition to the economic problems they face, the fishermen of Zarzis also have to confront serious security problems on the seas in which they navigate. While Libyan fishing boats have no hesitation, according to Slah Eddine, fishing in Tunisian waters, there is no leeway for Tunisian fishermen who venture outside the Tunisian zone. The Tunisians have lost count of the number of attacks, seizures of boats, threats and hostage-taking by Libyan armed groups that have occurred in recent years. Some of these attacks were even carried out by official Libyan coastguards, equipped by the European Union to combat irregular migration.
In 2012, a Tunisian fisherman was killed by bullets fired from a Libyan coastal patrol boat, while the other 18 members of the crew were taken prisoner to Tripoli.
In 2015, four Tunisian fishing boats that had entered Libyan waters were taken hostage by Libyan militias and forced to the port of El Zaouira.
Such attacks have taken place even in Tunisian waters. In February 2016, thirteen Tunisian trawlers with seventy sailors on board were boarded and taken to the same port of Zaouira, where the Libyans demanded a ransom for their release.
The following year, in 2017, Libyan fishermen from Zaouira threatened to kidnap all the Tunisian sailors they met at sea in retaliation for the inspection of a Libyan trawler in Sfax by the Tunisian coastguard. Since then, hostage-taking has multiplied. The umpteenth episode in an endless saga, the most recent Libyan attack occurred in September 2019.
This insecurity does not affect only the fishermen of Zarzis, but all those Tunisian fishermen who sail near maritime frontiers: in the south-east, they are threatened by the guns of Libyan groups; in the north-west, by those of the Algerian coastguard. On 31 January 2019, a 33-year-old fisherman from Tabarka was killed by the Algerian authorities when his boat entered Algerian territorial waters. “Danger is everywhere! We are being shot at!” exclaimed the fishermen of the Association. Between mourning and anger, they condemn the lack of a determined response from the Tunisian authorities against these attacks. They find it hard to get used to the idea that their lives could be threatened every time they set out to sea.
The Wretched of the Sea
Like any seaman, the fishermen of Zarzis must assist boats in distress that they come across on their paths at sea; and there is no shortage of boats in distress off the coast of Zarzis. By chance, their fishing area happens to be on the route for migrants fleeing Libya in makeshift unseaworthy boats, and accidents are common in these dangerous waters. Helping the survivors, contacting the Centre de Coordination des Sauvetages en Mer (the Sea Rescue Coordination Centre), bringing back the bodies, when they arrive too late, in order to offer them a dignified burial: this too, is part of everyday life for the fishermen of Zarzis; the feelings of dread and anger at their own powerlessness when corpses get caught in their nets; the anxiety and relief when the worst is avoided and everyone gets safely back to port.
Saving lives, while there is still time is above all a humanitarian duty for these men and women of the sea. The question of whether or not to do it, does not arise, notwithstanding the hours of labour and income lost. In order to be more efficient in their response and to help a greater number of survivors, more than a hundred fishermen from Zarzis took part in a 6-day training course on sea rescue organised by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) in 2015. Since the European Union policies criminalizing NGOs conducting search and rescue operations at sea have left a pronounced vacuum in the Mediterranean, the Tunisian fishermen now find themselves on the front line for rescue operations. As a result, when they set out to sea, the fishermen always take extra food and water, in case a drifting boat crosses their path.
Saviours that Europe Portrays as Criminals
Beyond the humanitarian call of duty, rescuing boats in distress is an obligation enshrined in international maritime law and in particular in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which applies to all craft. The text obliges all States to coordinate their assistance and to cooperate in bringing people to a place of safety, where the lives of survivors are no longer threatened and where their basic needs can be met.
When Chameseddine Bourrasine’s crew came across a boat with 14 migrants adrift in the summer of 2018, they decided without hesitation, to rescue them. The survivors threatened to commit suicide if they were taken back to Tunisia and there was no question of handing them over to the Libyan coastguard and the hell of Libyan jails awaiting them. The captain therefore decided to call the coastguard of the nearest safe country, Italy. After several attempts to make contact went unanswered, he decided to tow the migrants’ boat to Italy to disembark them in a place where they would be safe. Accused with his crew of being guilty of aiding so-called “illegal” immigration, this rescue cost the seven fishermen 22 days of imprisonment in Sicily.
Although the trial was dismissed, the fishermen of Zarzis remain in the sights of the Italian authorities. “We, the Tunisian fishermen… Italy would like to control us and further restrict the zone in which we can fish,” Slah Eddine laments. “The Italians are watching us!” He also mentioned the surveillance of EUNAFOR Med, also known as Sophia, a military operation launched by the European Union in 2015 in the Mediterranean in order to, as the Commission puts it, “dismantle the economic model of smugglers and traffickers in human beings.” While the military operation keeps a close watch on them when it comes to rescue at sea, when it comes to attacks by Libyan militias, Sophia looks away and leaves Tunisian fishermen to their fate.
“We can no longer bear it, it’s impossible, there’s nothing left,” the fishermen repeat, agreeing with the words with which Slah Eddine has just presented their situation. Between the polluted waters, the economic problems, the scourge of Daesh, the fish that no longer reproduce, the diseased sponges, the Libyan attacks, the Italian and European pressure, being a fisherman in Tunisia… “it’s no longer a life.” Most of their sons have left for Europe after “burning” the sea. They know that in this region, which makes its living above all from fishing, there is no future for them.
Then there are those who, deprived of any other source of income, are forced to turn to “guiding.” Born into families where fishing is passed down from father to son, they know the sea, its winds, storms, tides and currents. They know where to get hold of boats. When these sea dogs are at the helm, the journey is safer for those who risk the crossing to Europe aboard a dinghy. While increasingly, Tunisian harragas are systematically deported when arrested by the Italian authorities, some smugglers have swapped their Tunisian clients for sub-Saharan ones, who are becoming more numerous as the situation in Libya deteriorates. In the absence of legitimate channels for migrants, the demand for passage to Europe only increases. And in the absence of alternative sources of income for fishermen, supply is expanding.
Yet it is neither the “invisible hand” nor fatalism of any description that forces these fishermen to leave or diversify their activities, but the combination of the development model of uncontrolled pollution, the inaction of the Tunisian authorities in terms of environmental protection, and the cynicism of the European Union’s murderous migration and security policies.
 Official facebook page of the association: https://www.facebook.com/pg/Association-le-pecheur-pour-le-d%C3%A9velopement-et-lenvironnement-268728009986768/about/?ref=page_internal
 See: Association Survie, “Tunisie : l’héritage colonial des salins du midi,” by Ali Oktef in Billets d’Afrique n°279, July August 2018. https://survie.org/billets-d-afrique/2018/279-juillet-aout-2018/article/tunisie-l-heritage-colonial-des-salins-du-midi
 The increase in water temperature is considered to be the main factor in epidemics affecting the principal commercial sponge species (Hippospongia communis) that live in Tunisian waters. See: Peters, E.C., 1993, “Diseases of other invertebrate phyla: Porifera, Cnidaria, Ctenophora, Annelida, Echinodermata,” in: J.A. Couch and J.W. Fourine (Eds.) Pathology of Marine and Estuarine Organisms, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
 Web Manager Center, “La réapparition du changement de couleur de la mer inquiète les marins-pêcheurs à Sfax,” 19 November 2019, https://www.webmanagercenter.com/2019/11/19/441443/la-reapparition-du-changement-de-couleur-de-la-mer-inquiete-les-marins-pecheurs-a-sfax/?fbclid=IwAR2kZbZGHtFo-zSclNspBtARMbPxKa8zSmZMDtpJSExqahTpFOHIYQr_PWI
 The blue crab, of Asian origin, has proliferated in the Mediterranean after its accidental introduction by a cargo ship from Asia when discharging ballast water. It is believed that climate change is sustaining its wider distribution, due to increasing seawater temperature.
 The 5+5 dialogue is an informal framework for dialogue between the 10 countries of the Western Mediterranean (Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Malta, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal).
 According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, known as the 1982 Montego Bay Convention, the Exclusive Economic Zone, with a maximum width of 200 miles (370 km) beyond the coast, is an area where the coastal state has “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing natural resources, the waters above the seabed, the seabed itself and its subsoil.” The coastal State may therefore regulate fishing activity, including setting the allowable catch.
 Libya allows only a few Egyptian trawlers to fish in its exclusive fishing zone, according to the Zarzis fishermen.
 Screen capture. Source: http://marineregions.org/eezdetails.php?mrgid=8366&zone=eez
 Borders are supposed to be determined by the 8 August 1988 Agreement between Tunisia and Libya implementing the judgment of the International Court of Justice in the Continental Shelf case between Tunisia and Libya – http://www.marineregions.org/documents/LBY-TUN1988CS.PDF
 Direct Info, “Tunisie- Libye : Sit-in à Ben Guerdane suite à la mort du marin pêcheur,” 29 June 2012 – https://directinfo.webmanagercenter.com/2012/06/29/tunisie-libye-sit-in-a-ben-guerdane-suite-a-la-mort-du-marin-pecheur/
 Webdo, “Des pêcheurs tunisiens détenus par des Libyens,” 24 December 2015 – http://www.webdo.tn/2015/12/24/pecheurs-tunisiens-detenus-libyens/
 Kapitalis, “Pêcheurs tunisiens enlevés en Libye : les ravisseurs exigent une rançon,” 14 February 2016 – http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/2016/02/14/pecheurs-tunisiens-enleves-en-libye-les-ravisseurs-exigent-une-rancon/
 Tunisie numérique, “Décès d’un marin-pêcheur tué par balle tirée par un gendarme algérien,” 31 January 2019 – https://www.tunisienumerique.com/tunisie-deces-dun-marin-pecheur-tue-par-balle-tiree-par-un-gendarme-algerien/
 MSF, “Des pêcheurs tunisiens reçoivent une formation de sauveteurs en mer,” 4 September 2015 – https://www.msf.fr/actualites/des-pecheurs-tunisiens-recoivent-une-formation-de-sauveteurs-en-mer
 This notion is defined by the IMO’s (non-binding) guidelines on the treatment of persons rescued at sea (§6.12) as “a location where rescue operations are expected to end (…) where the lives of survivors are no longer threatened and where their basic needs (such as food, shelter and medical care) can be met. In addition, it is a place from which the transport of survivors to their next or final destination can be arranged.” http://www.imo.org/en/OurWork/Facilitation/personsrescued/Documents/MSC.167(78).pdf
 Inkyfada, “Les pêcheurs tunisiens : nouvelle cible de l’Italie,” 10 September 2018 – https://inkyfada.com/fr/2018/10/09/pecheurs-tunisie-passeurs-italie/
 Word originating from Maghreb Arabic ﺣﺮﺍﻗـة ḥarrāga, ḥarrāg, “that which burns” is used to designate migrants who sail from the Maghreb countries without documents (having burnt them).
 Tunisian migrants intercepted in Italy are systematically sent back to Tunisia under a readmission agreement (a so-called “Mobility Partnership”) signed between Italy and Tunisia.