Brit-Yank journalist & environment consultant.
Fellow @ Center for Climate & Security, TED fellow, Reporting @NatGeo, @NYT, @bbc etc
Until recently, Gamal Ahmed Gamal had made a living working the fields of the northern Nile Delta, and — like his father and many generations before him — he assumed he always would.
But over the past decade, conditions deteriorated bit by bit: Saltier soil shrank his wheat yields and caused his trees to wither. When his lone cow developed skin ailments from wallowing in brackish groundwater, Gamal knew it was over. In 2017, he took up a cousin’s offer of a berth on his boat and joined a crew of rookie fishermen working out of the Egyptian port of Rosetta.
Life at sea has not been much kinder to Gamal — or to his fellow new arrivals, many of whom also turned to the profession as a last resort.
No one’s catching much, not least because of the increased competition. No one’s selling much, either. With the fishermen increasingly unable to support their families, the mood among those who gather each morning at the docks is grim.
“We see the sea as a blessing, something that will always give us a living,” Gamal said. “But it’s not doing that at the moment, and now we are all suffering.”
Rosetta is not the only Mediterranean fishing port struggling to survive. A combination of devastating environmental changes and geopolitical strife has made life increasingly precarious for the region’s fishing communities.
Warming waters and shrinking fish stocks have pushed fishermen to sail farther afield or be less discriminating as to where they drop their nets. Some have become caught in the crosshairs of territorial disputes as a result: Libyan authorities have repeatedly seized Italian fishermen who sail into contested waters.
Even if the region’s politics were to become more stable, the worsening effects of climate change will likely leave fishermen struggling. The Mediterranean is warming fast; one study last year showed temperature increases in the area had already hit 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The Mediterranean fishermen’s difficulties could therefore be a harbinger of things to come around the world, experts say.
“The Mediterranean is like a miniature ocean,” said Marta Coll, a senior researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC) in Barcelona. “It’s like a miniature laboratory to analyze what’s going to happen in other parts of the world.”
The issues plaguing the Mediterranean’s fishermen are partly due to its unique geography. As a semi-enclosed sea, with a lone portal to the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s acutely vulnerable to everything from plastic pollution to excessive nutrient richness, known as eutrophication. The densely populated coastal regions also include some of the planet’s biggest per-capita consumers of fish.
In recent years, those vulnerabilities have been exacerbated by the cumulative effects of climate change and other shocks, including overfishing, which together have had dire consequences for the region’s fish stocks.
Nevertheless, in some countries, especially crisis-ravaged nations in North Africa and the Levant, people are still turning to fishing as employment prospects onshore deteriorate. (In others, like Greece, fishing fleets have declined.)
The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) found that while the number of fishing vessels in the Mediterranean and Black seas has stagnated overall in the last two years, several countries — including Algeria, Egypt and Libya — reported an increase of more than 15 percent each. Tiny Lebanon, for example, hosts over 2,000 active fishing vessels, a figure that local fishermen say is climbing as the country’s economy crumbles.
But, like the fishermen of Rosetta, many find the work less reliable than they had hoped. In some places, such as Egypt, they face growing competition from inland aquaculture; in others, such as Lebanon, economic downturns and the coronavirus pandemic have led to a drop in demand.
Many have seen the size of their catch dwindle — one study concluded the number of fish in the Mediterranean has declined by more than a third in the past 50 years — and the fish themselves are also changing.
With the Mediterranean warming 20 to 30 percent faster than the global average, much of the food on which fish rely is dying off, causing fish to get thinner and smaller. A number of native fish species, such as monkfish, are at risk of eventually disappearing.
“What’s happening is that these fish in higher temperatures have a higher energy requirement, a higher metabolism, so their demand for food is higher,” said Miguel Bernal, senior fisheries officer at the GFCM. “If they can’t find it they are in a worse condition. They are outside their optimal temperature range.”
Rampant overfishing in coastal areas and changing currents due to warming waters are also changing fishing patterns, making catches less predictable.
“The fishing patterns are all messed up. Sometimes they come later. Sometimes they come earlier,” said Vasili Lydas, a fisherman from the Greek island of Kalymnos. In October, he said, “the tuna are around [the islets of] Imia and that’s not usual. This kind of thing keeps on happening and it’s problem for all of us.”
In this part of the Mediterranean, changing fish migration patterns are also bringing Greek and Turkish fishermen — and their respective coast guards — into contact in contested waters to potentially dangerous effect, given growing tensions between the two countries.
Many crews can’t afford to travel longer distances in search of more desirable waters and better catches — or can’t access them for political reasons once they get there.
Regional navies have dramatically expanded their presence and the frequency of their naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean as a result of intensifying geopolitical rivalries over maritime boundaries and energy resources.
Padelis Amorianos, a fisherman in his seventies who sails out of Syros in Greece’s Cyclades, said he’s been repelled from his favorite fisheries by at least half a dozen navies — including the Americans, Russians, Turks and Egyptians — in the past three years alone.
“The fact is: Fish are like immigrants. They move a lot,” he said. “And a lot of the time they move into areas where we are now unable to travel.”
If everything they catch were edible, some fishermen say, they might still be able to scrape by. But that’s not the case.
The warming Mediterranean is becoming increasingly hospitable for tropical, non-native species, many of which appear to be venturing through the recently expanded Suez Canal from the Red Sea.
Some invasive species, like the Atlantic blue crab, can command high prices. But many of the more aggressive invaders, such as lionfish and pufferfish, are toxic — and flourish just as stocks of sardines and many other commercially viable species teeter.
“It feels like I catch nothing but lionfish — and they’re poison,” said Samir Ghanem, a fisherman from Beirut who turned to the profession after his business collapsed. “You pull out a big net, and it’s lionfish. You despair.”
Faced with challenges beyond their control, many fishermen have resigned themselves to dwindling prospects. They continue to cast their nets for lack of a better option.
A small minority, however, has turned elsewhere, either selling their boats to human traffickers shuttling migrants over the sea to Europe or piloting boats full of people themselves.
In Libya, fleets of traditional blue wooden boats are being produced not for fishermen but for smugglers, according to Chloe Howe Haralambous, a tactical coordinator for Sea Watch, a migrant rescue organization that flies reconnaissance aircraft over the Mediterranean, among other operations.
The Mediterranean’s crumbling fisheries can only be salvaged if policymakers cooperate across borders to address the issues plaguing these communities, experts say.
“The large majority of the important commercial stocks are shared between countries, so the only way to manage them is to have harmonized monitoring, a harmonized set of rules to manage fishing activities, and a harmonized capacity to ensure and implement these measures,” said the GFCM’s Bernal.
But decisive action remains elusive, with relations between some littoral states either hostile or non-existent. Others are far too consumed by domestic economic or governance woes, or — as is in the case of Syria and Libya — ravaged by conflict. In those conditions, “fisheries aren’t always the priority,” said Bernal.
The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the pressure on some fisheries. Greek fishermen say that a new wave of underemployed workers — many of whom typically work in the tourism industry, which has ground to a halt amid flight bans and quarantine measures — have joined their ranks, increasing competition and exacerbating tensions.
Still, despite these pressures, some see cause for optimism. Overexploitation of fish stocks in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea has fallen — from 88 percent in 2012 to 75 percent in 2018, a small but crucial reversal. A number of species of fish are getting fatter, too, a product of more sustainable fisheries management by some countries. Many fishermen also say they’re starting to see fewer destructive practices, like stunning fish, among their counterparts.
But if there is hope conditions may slowly be improving, these changes are unlikely to affect those struggling to survive now.
“We can’t wait for things to improve in the future,” said Gamal, the fisherman in Rosetta. “Because we need to feed our families now.”