It seems that marine life has been sending threatening messages to humanity recently. But is anybody listening?
From shark attacks to the extinction of some marine species — these are only a few of the alarming signals that marine life is sending out, often as a result of overfishing or the use of destructive methods by fishermen and seafood dealers.
Illegal poaching methods are designed to catch large stocks of fish in just a few minutes using illegal methods such as explosions, electric shocks, and narrow-gauge nets. Such malpractice has been blamed for the extinction of some species of fish, the disappearance of turtles from Egypt’s northern coast, and the recurrence of shark attacks off the Red Sea coast.
Shark attacks have recently been on the rise off Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, and this has prompted experts and the authorities alike to investigate the phenomenon. Only a few weeks ago, a woman bathing near a Red Sea resort in Dahab was attacked by a shark while only two metres away from the shore and in only two metres of water.
The woman survived, but her arm was devoured by the shark, and the whole resort had to be closed during the investigation.
This incident was also not the first. In June this year, a Russian national in his 20s was killed in a similar incident. Last year, two women were killed in an attack south of Hurghada in the Red Sea, while in 2020 a shark attacked a 12-year-old Ukrainian boy who lost an arm and an Egyptian guide in Sharm El-Sheikh who lost his leg in the attack.
Investigations have been in progress to reveal the reasons behind the attacks, with fingers bring pointed to overfishing among other reasons.
Experts say that some fishermen have become the enemies of marine life. Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture-affiliated General Authority for the Development of Fisheries Resources (GADFR) indicate that 35 per cent of Egypt’s annual fish catch, to the tune of one million tons, comes from the waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea along with the River Nile and freshwater lakes.
But although fishing in the Red Sea constitutes a fraction of the fish catch in Egypt, the recent shark attacks are perhaps an alarm bell that overfishing is now threatening both marine and human life.
The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESE) recently warned on its Website that dangers facing Egypt’s Red Sea marine reserves are on the rise, “representing a major threat to marine and environmental life as well as having a negative impact on tourism and other economic sectors.”
This danger was the result of “an increase in illegal fishing and recreational violations that threaten Egypt’s national wealth of coral reefs and marine life,” it said.
Professor of the marine environment at the Suez Canal University Faculty of Science Mahmoud Hassan Hanafi said in a report published by the ECESE that fish stocks in the Red Sea have reached “a critical level”. The report, titled “The Prudent Path”, called for action to be taken to preserve the remaining natural resources in the region, which are a main source of investment and national income from tourism.
According to Hanafi, fishing catches now account for 20,000 tons of fish annually, a far cry from the legal limit of 2,000 tons per year.
He said there were dangers associated with so-called recreational fishing, which “may have promoted large and predatory animals such as sharks to search for other areas in which to obtain their food, after fish stocks in their own habitat have dwindled as a result of overfishing.”
“Sharks are showing signs of unusual behaviour, as they can became nervous and edgy, as a result of losing their food sources,” the report warned. “They become attracted to any food source on ships and boats, even waste and sewage, threatening the lives of human beings and affecting the tourism sector in general.”
Specialists and those interested in marine organisms have been up-in-arms over the danger of overfishing as a result, carrying out studies and aiming to develop solutions and draw up legislation to prevent destructive practices that can destroy marine life and whole ecosystems.
VERFISHING: “Overfishing is the cancer of the sea,” said Raafat Hamza, an assistant professor of water sports at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Physical Education.
“Overfishing disrupts the balance of marine life, which ultimately leads to the extinction of some species and the growth of others,” Hamza said. “The change in the environmental balance disturbs the ecosystem, negatively affecting marine life.”
A case in point can be seen in a report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that says that in 2017 alone 37 per cent of the world’s marine environment, especially the seafloor, has been negatively affected. The reason, according to the report, is that certain fishing boats have used dredgers that have damaged the seafloor environment of certain fish species, particularly sponges and others.
The report calls on a number of key points to be taken into account when deciding on fishing methods and quotas. They include setting the optimal periods for fishing and activating the laws to protect the marine environment. This should be done by the authorities concerned, which should also be mandated to determine the fishing areas and spread awareness about endangered species and those that should not be caught.
It says that markets should be monitored for violations and environmentally friendly fishing equipment should also be made available to fishermen to stop the use of illegal alternatives that are bound to harm or exhaust the ecosystem. There should be stricter penalties for violations, and seminars and workshops should be held to spread awareness of the problem, the report says.
In the same vein, rapid interventions should be carried out in the marine environment to determine any damage and to evaluate the situation of extinct and endangered species. Such studies should identify the causes of the damage to marine life and suggest policies that could curb them according to a clear-cut timetable.
Egypt has taken precautionary measures in response to the recurrence of shark attacks in the Red Sea, which have been partly blamed on the disappearance of fish stocks that may have caused sharks to leave their normal habitat in search of food.
Fishing has been prohibited, whether for recreational or commercial purposes, during fish-breeding months, as it has been found that halting fishing between May and June can double fish stocks. A fund has been established to compensate fishermen for losses incurred by the ban.
Osama, a fisherman and the owner of two fishing boats in Alexandria concentrating on fishing for sardines, told Al-Ahram Weekly that fishermen are happy with any measure aiming to protect the source of their livelihoods, which he said were already greatly affected by climate change more than human malpractice.
“We are waiting for the sardine season, which starts in April and lasts until the end of the summer, because the pungent smell of sardines typically attracts all sorts of fish,” Osama said.
“However, this year there are significantly fewer sardines, probably due to climate change. This deficiency has reflected negatively on many fishermen who have fallen into debt as their losses in the high season impact on their incomes for the rest of the year.”
Osama did not blame human malpractice for the lack of sardines. Fishermen in Alexandria “do not violate the laws partly because they are keen on preserving the fish stocks,” he said. “Strict supervision is exercised over the whole business, ranging from shops selling fishing equipment to fishing boats.”
“The fish stocks are the source of our livelihoods, and we have no other source of income,” Osama said, adding that the new regulations preventing fishing during May and June have been welcomed by those in the business because they “help the growth of fish stocks”.
“This partial ban on fishing is the right decision and in the interest of the fish stocks,” Osama maintained. “We use wide-gauge nets so that small fish fry immediately drop and return to their normal habitats, allowing fish stocks to be maintained and replenished. The laws are also well enforced.”
Walid, who fishes as a hobby, said he preferred to fish off the city of Port Said where fish stocks are usually abundant. Just like Osama, Walid said that overfishing cannot exist in the presence of strict laws and supervision, at least in the place where he goes fishing where restrictions are effectively imposed.
“There are strict controls when it comes to fishing, and we have to obtain a fishing permit from the authorities before we embark on any trips,” Walid told the Weekly.
“Today, there is no poaching due to the strict restrictions and the spread of awareness among fishermen,” he said. “The authorities conduct periodic follow-up inspections, and narrow nets are thus never used. The fishermen themselves avoid using narrow-gauge nets and harmful equipment because they are keen on preserving the fish stocks, which are the source of their livelihoods and help to maintain the job they want to pass onto their children.
“Both professional and amateur fishermen immediately dump fish fry back into the sea if they accidently get tangled in the fishing nets because we are all aware that otherwise marine life will be damaged. Explosives and electric fishing equipment are not found because they are strictly banned and would cause a sound that could be easily detected by the authorities.”
There is almost a consensus that overfishing is not only detrimental to marine life and the livelihood of fishermen, but that it also affects people’s health. According to nutritionist Hanaa Sobhi, “if overfishing continues, the loss of fish stocks will ultimately impact people’s health, as it will lead to a lack of fish and therefore a lack of an important part of human diets.”
Seafood, according to Sobhi, is rich in minerals and vitamins that are essential for the human body. Polluting this “superfood” with toxic waste and damaging it by illegal fishing are thus detrimental to human health.
“Seafood is of paramount importance to human health since it is a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin B complex in addition to many other minerals and vitamins that help fight obesity and disease,” Sobhi said.
“Besides being a prime brain food, fish also helps with the growth of bones and is good for the heart. Fish oils strengthen memory, lower blood pressure, and fight Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, and cancer. They contain amino acids and elements that are easy to digest. Fish also improves sleep and the metabolism.”
EGAL FRAMEWORK: There are many laws that aim to protect marine life, but it remains questionable whether there are loopholes that allow for violations.
Lawyer Ahmed Mohamed Farra, also a member of the Human Rights Committee and the Rights and Freedoms Committee of the Lawyers Syndicate, explained the laws prohibiting overfishing in Egypt.
“Article 16 of the anti-fishing law requires that boats designated for fishing be labelled with a serial number on both sides marking the type of boat and the area in which it is allowed to operate,” Farra said.
“Article 17 of the same law mandates approval from the Authority for the Protection and Development of Lakes and Fisheries regarding the dimensions of fishing boats, while Article 18 stipulates the lighting and spacing regulations that fishing boats should abide by, according to the navigation laws and the rules of the Egyptian Authority for the Safety of Maritime Navigation.”
This authority not only defines the proper distances between boats, but also defines the areas and passages where fishing boats are not allowed to operate or moor unless there is an emergency, such as bad weather conditions, a threat to the boat in question, or if it is engaged on a rescue mission.
In such cases, the captain of the boat should inform the Maritime Call Centre and abide by detailed instructions. Fines of LE5 to LE20 can be imposed in the case of violations, and these can be doubled if the violations are repeated.
Article 20 of the law states that fishing boats can only be used by those who have a certificate of fitness to work on a boat in marine waters issued by the authority or a licence for fishing in inland waters issued by the General Authority for River Transport.
Licences are issued according to the nature of each vessel. The law punishes anyone who violates it with imprisonment for a period of not less than three months and not more than a year and a fine of not less than LE10,000 and not more than LE50,000. In cases of recurrence, the penalty is doubled. Article 21 of the law stipulates that fishing is not permitted in certain areas and periods, or by prohibited methods or using prohibited equipment.
Article 22 of the law prohibits the use of unauthorised nets or machines that can harm marine life. It is prohibited to possess these machines and materials at fishing sites. Article 23 of the law also prohibits selling or possessing certain kinds of fish or other aquatic life in fresh, frozen, dried, or salted form, if the size of these species is less than those determined by the authority.
While these laws may be effective in curbing overfishing in the Mediterranean, however, a lot still needs to be done to stop damaging fishing in the Red Sea. Hanafi warned against human activities that are destructive to marine life in the region, saying that these are unfortunately rife due “to the emergence of intensive development”.
He stressed that “the Red Sea is not a fishing area, and that the economic and environmental value of its fish when they are alive is much higher than their value when they are dead.
“Overfishing makes the region’s coral reefs more vulnerable to climate change due to practices that disrupt the ecosystem,” he said. “The reefs in the Red Sea are a unique national resource, and they may even turn out to be the last coral reefs in the world, especially with the rise in sea temperatures across the world.”
Rising sea temperatures can cause the bleaching and ultimately the death of coral reefs.
The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights has been appealing to the government and the responsible agencies to “immediately halt overfishing in [the Red Sea] and reduce the waste of marine resources due to human and tourism activities”.
It has also called on international organisations such as the UN cultural agency UNESCO to declare the Red Sea region a World Natural Heritage Site, owing to its unique environmental importance.
* The writer is a freelance journalist.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly