Almost a year after Israel imposed harsh restrictions on fishing off the Gaza coast, the industry is in sharp decline and fishermen’s livelihoods are in jeopardy.
Gaza fishermen are now allowed by the Israeli navy to fish up to eight nautical miles off the coast after what the UN described as a "near total ban" on fishing since last June, when Gaza-based militants from the armed Palestinian faction Hamas abducted an Israeli soldier.
The best fishing begins at about 18 nautical miles out, Gaza fishermen say. However, they have not been allowed so far out for so long that the coastal waters have been overexploited, resulting in the depletion of breeding grounds.
Israel said the restrictions were necessary to stop weapons and drugs smuggling into Gaza, though the Oslo Accords of 1993 stipulated that Palestinian fishermen were entitled to fish up to 20 nautical miles out.
Livelihoods at risk
At Gaza City's main seafood market, the concrete floor was almost bare of fish.
"Our fishermen are now very poor. If you go to their homes you will see their families don't have good clothes. On the other hand, the sales of what fish we have are very low. This is now a very weak industry," said market owner Mohammed Abu Kheir.
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Demand for fish in Gaza has fallen thanks to spiralling poverty, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organisation, which in March reported that more than half of Gazans suffered from food insecurity.
"Meat and fish are expensive and people aren't eating them so much. So they aren't getting enough protein in general," said Amir Yassine, a WFP fieldworker.
The amount of fish caught off Gaza has been in steady decline since 2004 - but 2006 marked a new low of 1,604 tonnes, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). Revenues from fishing have dropped from about US$10 million before 2000 to less than half that today.
"There are a few sardines now. But some fishermen are using nets with such small holes which means they are also catching the babies. They don't have time to grow and breed and one day the cycle of life will simply stop," said Ghanem Abu Jamal, a 60-year-old fisherman.
Abu Jamal said he used one-inch nets but that others were using nets up to three times smaller and added that the MoA had few controls in place to stop the overfishing.
Increasing the range for Gaza fishermen would not improve the industry's long-term chances because fish stocks were declining across the Mediterranean, Israel said.
|Meat and fish are expensive and people aren't eating them so much. So they aren't getting enough protein in general.|
"Even if they go far out there will be no fish. It's a problem everywhere in the Mediterranean. In the future there will be no more fish to catch," said government spokesman Shlomo Dror.
Dror said the Palestinian practice of pumping raw sewage into the sea from Gaza, the cheapest disposal method, was harmful to the area's remaining fish, and he said that even before the restrictions were imposed, Gaza's 6,000 registered fishermen had had to venture into Egyptian and Israeli waters in order to get enough of a catch.
"There are only 300 registered fishermen in Israel and they find it hard to make a living," he added.
"The fishing industry faces long-term decline and even possible extinction if the current restrictions are maintained," warned the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in its report Gaza Fishing: An Industry in Danger. It urged Israel to increase the range allowed to fishermen.
Photo: Tom Spender/IRIN
|The Gaza City fish market is bare because fishermen cannot get out to sea, the UN says|
The fishermen themselves are becoming increasingly dependent on UN food handouts, OCHA warned.
It accused the Israelis of not making clear to Palestinian fishermen when and where they can fish. Four fishermen have been killed since last summer, with many more injured and their boats damaged after being fired upon by Israeli gunboats.
"No formal communication exists between the Israel Defence Forces and fishermen over the range to which boats are permitted. This lack of dialogue has led to the deaths, injuries and continuing arrest of fishermen," the report said.