With the beginning of the sardine fishing season in Sidon, veteran fisherman Abu Omar Skafi leads a flotilla of boats across the water every evening at dusk in search of one of the country’s most popular fish.
Carrying some ten fishermen each, the boats are equipped with gas-fired lanterns their one concession to modernisation and the large nets Sidon fishermen have used for centuries. Both, said the 65-year-old Skafi, “are vital for a good catch”.
Israeli gunboats patrolling the area are an occupational hazard. “They sometimes shoot at our boats to try to intimidate us. This is why we try to avoid getting in their way as much as possible,” said Skafi.
Once safely out on the water, the wait can be as long as eight hours. Even then, said Skafi, there is no guarantee of a good catch and the nets sometimes bring up nothing but litter.
“During the wait, we must remain absolutely motionless until the sardines are caught,” he said. Skafi said the small fish usually collect in an area of 500m2, where the light shines onto the water, but strong currents and winds will prevent them from congregating.
Two or three fishermen at a time lean over the sides of the boat, using their lamps to monitor the movements of the schools of sardines. When they enter the net, a monitor whispers “they’re in” into the ear of the rayyes (skipper). The nets are then hoisted and the fish dumped onto wooden planks with a capacity of 20kg each.
“If we’re lucky, we might get up to 1,000kg,” he said.
“But sometimes we end up with only a few kilos, mixed with a lot of garbage.”
Skafi said he was proud to use nothing but nets, without resorting to poles, poison or dynamite to catch fish.
A kilo of sardines usually sells for between LL1,000-2,000 but can go up to LL3,000. The fishermen depend on them to be a staple for the traditional mazza, and always in demand by local restaurants.
Nevertheless, fishermen in recent years have been particularly hard-hit by deteriorating socio-economic conditions.
The next several months hold the promise of money and prosperity, as well as the potential for the annual share of danger and undesired encounters.