BEIRUT/SIDON/TRIPOLI: The saline scent of the Mediterranean hangs in the air as 69-year-old Adnan al-Oud stands looking out at his nautical bureau where he’s spent decades seafaring.
For years, the sea generously provided heaps of fish for fishermen like Oud, but the once-plentiful aquatic expanse is no longer as giving as it once was.“[Today], the fisherman does not have enough money to pay for his food and if he has kids in school he can’t pay for them,” he says, standing in a small harbor under Beirut’s Ain al-Mreisseh boardwalk.
Oud lets a cigarette dangle from his calloused left hand. Grey curly hair crawls out from the back of his brown Pirelli hat, covering his small squinting eyes from the sun. He wears a tattered long brown T-shirt, long navy blue shorts, and his comfortable Crocs.
In his youth, Oud would work 10 days straight as a fireman and would use his usual 20 days off at sea being a fisherman.
Lebanese fishermen in the country’s fishing hotspots, including Tripoli and Sidon, are plagued by a number of problems today that include polluted waters and a lack of benefits. However, the most pressing issue for many of them is the use of the fishing net purse seine or “jaroufi” in Arabic.
The purse seine is a large fishing net made of long wall netting with hanging purse rings that is usually used by industrial fishing companies.
“The small fish die and only the big fish are taken,” says Ali Saad, a 23-year old fisherman lounging in a white chair near the Sidon seafront, speaking about the purse seine nets that hamper his profession. When small fish aren’t allowed to grow and lay eggs, the sea is not replenished with fish. While the purse seine is a staple of the global fishing sector, the abundant use of it in Lebanese waters is eating away at aquatic wildlife.
“Red Mullet [Sultan Ibrahim in Arabic] are only 5 percent of what they were in the ’70s,” Oud says, primarily blaming the purse seine for their elusiveness.
Each harbor can handle the use of a limited number of purse seines but Lebanon lacks strong biological data to regulate its use, meaning that nearly a dozen of the large nets can be deployed in a harbor only large enough for a few. The purse seine is regulated by the Agriculture Ministry but the “law enforcement is not quite efficient,” says Shady Indary of the Marine Resources and Coastal Zone Management Program at the University of Balamand in north Lebanon.
“A purse seine can easily catch between 500 to 1,000 or 2,000 kilograms of fish,” Indary says, adding that Lebanon’s artisanal fishing fleet and sector on the other hand can only catch a fraction of that amount.
“It’s used all around the world and we cannot stop it,” Indary says. “Better regulation and strong enforcement is needed.”
Sitting on a chair in front of the Sidon Fishermen’s Union, the Union’s President Hajj Marouf Ali Bawjeh explains why nothing has been done to regulate the purse seine’s use.
“A couple years ago there was an agreement with the ministry that the people using the purse seine nets would get rid of them and the [Agriculture] Ministry would pay them reparations so they could buy boats and nets,” said Bawjeh. “But it didn’t work. The government changed and a new minister came and the agreement didn’t go through.”
“The Agriculture Ministry is responsible [for the lack of regulation],” he says.
Attempts by The Daily Star to reach the Agriculture Ministry were unsuccessful.
There was a time when fathers passed on their professions to sons. However, as fishermen exploiting the lack of regulation continue to use the purse seine while the number of fish continues to dwindle, new generations are turning away from the profession.
“One guy left his boat behind,” Oud says, pointing to a freshly painted boat docked in the harbor. “All of us are the same. We’re all complaining and people are leaving to work as bus or taxi drivers or lifeguards.”
His own children have not inherited his profession, despite his passion for it, and have instead taken on jobs as police officers, one with the Internal Security Forces and the other with a local municipality.
“Fishermen won’t let their children into this profession because there’s no money,” he adds.
Yet regardless of the conditions, Oud carries on because of his passion for the job, and at 69 years old there is little else he can do.
As his wrinkled face cracks a smile, Oud says, “We were born in the sea.”