BEIRUT: Before returning to Ain al-Mreisseh’s small port in the capital, fishermen take a moment to remove a few fish from their net, stab them and throw them overboard.
Fishermen say that all puffer fish invariably receive the same treatment, especially since the Agriculture Ministry issued a decree in July that bans catching, selling and consumption of the extremely toxic fish. The move came after at least seven people died and many were poisoned over the past few years after consuming it.
Playing cards with other fishermen in Ain al-Mreisseh is 66-year-old Adnan Oud, one of many who ate the fish without knowing the danger. A few hours after his meal he recalls, he suddenly “felt numb.”
“I couldn’t walk or raise my hand … I was worried I was having a stroke,” he says. Oud spent four days in a hospital and says doctors never discovered the cause of his illness. But he’s certain the puffer fish was responsible as the moment he felt better, he visited the friend he had shared his meal with, who reported similar symptoms. “I’ve been crawling up the stairs … I couldn’t even carry my tools,” Oud recalls his blacksmith friend telling him.
Oud says many fishermen were skeptical of his story. “Some didn’t believe us, so they fed the fish to the cats. None of them survived, except for one, now walking on two legs.”
“Since then, no one has eaten it,” he says. “But the sea is full of it, and there is no way to get rid of it.”
The puffer fish was first seen in the Eastern Mediterranean some eight years ago. Since then, American University of Beirut marine biology professor Michel Barriche says, “the number of puffer fish [in the Mediterranean sea] exploded” and there are now “millions and millions.”
“The introduction of the new species can be compared with rats, cockroaches,” he explains. “They can live in any environment and eat a wide variety of food.”
“Fishermen are looking at their business; because you can’t eat the fish, it’s a major problem,” he adds.
According to Barriche, the puffer fish is not an isolated case. The opening of the Suez Canal unlocked a route from the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean and allowed the influx of many species, including this tropical fish.
“Species have been coming gradually for some 100 years, but few fishermen know that,” he says, adding that several other alien species that have established populations in the Mediterranean are believed to be native species by locals and fishermen.
In Ain al-Mreisseh, fisherman Mahedin Halab has just returned to the port. “Ten minutes ago, I caught three puffer fish. I stabbed them and threw them into the sea,” the 52-year-old says.
The fish is not only poisonous, it also much stronger than other species, says Hallab.
“It gets caught in the net and it tears it apart, and gets trapped in the cages and breaks them,” says Halab, showing big holes in his fishing nets. “It even breaks fishing hooks.”
Barriche reveals the reason behind the puffer jaw’s strength, saying, “Because this is a tropical fish, it has a mouth like a parrot, with a beak [meant to] crush coral.”
In Sidon, the general secretary of the Fishermen’s Union, Nazim Sonbol, says the appearance of the fish, which has a jaw “nothing like any other fish or human,” has meant trouble for their business. “It comes inside the net because of the fish inside, eats half of it and tears the net apart,” he says, adding that it takes fishermen three times longer than before to fix their nets.
Sonbol calls on the government to take action on what he describes as a “disaster.” “Because we’re not catching it, its number increases constantly,” he says, suggesting that the government pay fishermen to catch the puffer. “Without [financial] help, they won’t do it, they don’t have time,” he argues.
A few years ago, fishermen in Sidon strung up several puffer fish on a rope on the city’s corniche in a bid to raise awareness of the problem. Sonbol admits the fishermen also “took some joy in doing that.”
At Balamand University’s Institute of Environment, Marine Resources and Coastal Zone, professor Manal Nader says the fish feed on a little bit of everything.
“It’s a carnivorous fish,” he says. “It actually consumes everything that passes in front of him.”
“We also believe it’s competing with indigenous fish for food and shelter,” he says, adding this has not yet been scientifically proven.
Nader and his team heard fishermen’ complaints and began researching the puffer fish in January, trying to understand the fish and the effect the new environment has on its biology.
One kind of puffer fish is well known in East Asia, especially in Japan where daredevils like to consume “fugu” fish, a dish that can lead to a fast and brutal death if prepared incorrectly.
A myth circulating among Lebanon’s fishermen says that the fish appeared in the Mediterranean after Israel, which was supposedly raising fugu in fish farms for Japan, released them into the sea when Japan had enough domestic supply of fugu.
The idea that Japan needs Israel to supply it with fish is hardly believable, but for Nader, taking inspiration from Japanese cuisine and training chefs to prepare the fish could be one solution for fishermen.
At the Agriculture Ministry though, head of the Department of Fishery and Wildlife Samir Majdalani doesn’t express much enthusiasm for the idea. “It might be a bit premature,” he says, expressing his fear of the consequences of “limited knowledge” in the country of how to prepare the fish, paired with his fear that “people think they know everything.”
Nader suggests finding an “economic value” in the fish by adopting the Japanese tradition or using the fish’s toxin for medical research, but admits there this wouldn’t solve all the problems faced by fishermen.
“The solution is to take out as many as possible,” he says, as is suggested by fishermen in Sidon and also in Tripoli.
Majdalani says the issue of the puffer fish was tackled last year during a meeting of the East-Med project, which aims to support regionally-consistent fishery management among the Eastern Mediterranean countries. Majdalani says the group should bring in a consultant from East Asia to help them.
In Tripoli, the Lebanese Environment Protection Committee also provided fishermen with a presentation on puffer fish as part of a general awareness campaign on the fish’s dangers
“A lot of people used to eat it before, we had many problems, and many people ended up in hospital,” the Committee’s president Amer Haddad says.
He says the campaign was successful as no puffer fish could be seen on fish markets anymore, but acknowledges the majority of fishermen might not be completely convinced.