Maria Mansour - For years, despite its long coastline, Lebanon has not been self-sufficient in producing the fish its citizens love to eat. A huge discrepancy in the volumes of fish imports and exports shows the need for efforts to enhance and protect the country’s fish wealth and food security.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, (FAO), in 2022, Lebanon imported 11067 tons of fish, crustaceans, molluscs and others for 50.4 million USD. In contrast, only 1.6% of that figure, (178 tons) were exported for 1.3 million USD.
Similarly, the “FAO Yearbook of Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics in 2019” indicated that in 2017 Lebanon imported 55480 tons of fish and fishery products in live weight and exported just over one percent, 589 tons.
"During the civil war, fishing chaos began and continued, and this led to a decrease in fish wealth, but before the war, production was large," says Hanna Chawah, the head of the Syndicate of Fishermen in Beirut and its environs.
" If we calculate the population of Lebanon, the length of the Lebanese coast, and the areas eligible for fishing, the production of fish should meet the internal demand. But with the absence of a new law and the propagation of overfishing, our fish wealth has decreased and we are forced to import,” Chawah continues.
"Aquatic organisms" in the draft law
Now, a parliamentary sub-committee emanating from the joint committees is studying a draft law on Fishing and Aquaculture which includes basic amendments and additions that would regulate the sector and limit the current randomness of licensing.
During the preparation of the draft, there was close cooperation between the Ministry of Agriculture, the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) and FAO.
According to the Director of rural development and natural resources at the Ministry of Agriculture, Chadi Mhanna, experts from GFCM visited the Lebanese coast to study what species can be raised from a technical point of view and the risks that must be taken into account when cultivating marine organisms.
"For the first time, the issue of aquaculture is included in a law,” says Mhanna. “The current hunting law is about 100 years old, so it needs to be changed. We started working on the amendment, ten years ago, but we were not able to reach a conclusion before because of the change of governments or changes that occurred. But this time, it seems, we are beginning to reach conclusions, as the law is being discussed by a parliamentary committee in the presence of the Ministry of Agriculture.”
Chawah explains that, " as syndicates and cooperatives, we held several meetings with the Ministry of Agriculture during the drafting of the law.” But cautions that,” We are waiting for the issuance of the law to propose amendments that would make it compatible with the changes that took place during these years after the draft was drawn up”.
However, the head of the Fishermen's Syndicate in North Lebanon, Moustafa Anous, indicates that this syndicate did not participate in the drafting. The union includes more than 2,000 fishermen and around 90% of the members in Tripoli do not have a second source of income because “they have no other choice”, notes Anous.
Within the Syndicate of Fishermen in Beirut and its environs about 700 fishermen are also "forced to work another job to live ", according to Chawah, highlighting the challenge of depending on fishing as a livelihood.
“We protested against a project"
The absence of offshore fish farms in Lebanon, to complement freshwater aquaculture, reveals decades of frustrations.
According to the “National Aquaculture Sector Overview” prepared by FAO, “most of the Lebanese prefer marine fish and still do not know about different recipes which could include trout. However, this source of fish is growing and is increasingly becoming known to the Lebanese consumer.”
“There are around 1 685 species in the marine ecosystem. There is only one saltwater aquaculture facility in Lebanon: a penaeid shrimp farm in the northern town of Abdeh.”
The Director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Balamand, Manal Nader, explains that until now legal issues have been a major obstacle to marine fish farms. "The law does not allow the exploitation of water bodies, and this is what prevents the placement of cages in the sea.”
Nader points out that the start-up costs of marine fish farms projects are high, and therefore, "the investor will not put his money in the absence of a law that protects him."
Among the additional obstacles, according to Nader, is the absence of the necessary infrastructure in the ports and on land, and the tools needed for the maintenance of the equipment in the sea.
Chawah, from the Syndicate of Fishermen in Beirut and its environs recounts, "almost thirty years ago, we protested as [a] syndicate against a project of marine fish farm in southern Lebanon and did meetings to stop it. We considered that it would speculate on the fisherman's production. But when the volume of imports of fish (in dollar) increased, we changed our position regarding marine fish farm[s]".
"The bureaucracy stopped us"
According to Mohamed Ajami, the son of former MP Ahmad Ajami, in the last three years, "active political parties in the south, Hezbollah and the Amal movement”, have hoped that he would resume his interest in a marine fish farm project that he had stopped twenty-five years ago.
Ajami explains that the idea of the project began after a visit to Greece, and preparations for it began as far back as 1993. On land near the sea owned by the Ajami family in Adloun in the south, they were going to implement a farm for shrimp production. In addition, they planned to establish a port to support the work of a marine farm, 10 kilometers from the shore, to produce two types of fish, sea bass and sea bream.
The family was interested in this initiative because, as he explains, "the project was going to employ between 150 and 200 workers in the first phase. A purely developmental project and an economic project that could generate profits after a certain number of years."
Delegations from Greece, China, Egypt and Cyprus visited Lebanon to conduct logistical studies, according to Ajami, who describes with disappointment how the completion of each transaction in the official institutions at the time used to take six to seven months. "The bureaucracy stopped us," he says.
Ajami explains that the financing of the project would have been through loans with reduced interest rates from a Lebanese bank, and that they had no partners in this project.
After completing a large number of transactions, the family took the decision not to complete the project in 1998 because the numbers and techniques had changed, and loans with appropriate interest rates were no longer available.
Despite the new legal developments, Ajami confirms that he is not interested in returning to fish farming, but he hopes to see similar projects implemented in Lebanon.
More than 100 km from Adloun, a “biohut nursery”, a different approach aiming to reverse the decline in fish stocks, will soon be piloted in Amchit. The project is based on "100% recyclable" materials, according to the French company, Ecocean, that developed it. Ecocean is a Montpellier company created in 2003. According to its website, the company has installed more than 4,800 biohut nurseries to date.
“Biohuts” in Amchit
In a bid to manage fishing resources more sustainably, the Diaries of the Ocean, an association that focuses on marine environmental issues, will implement a cage project to serve as a shelter for small fish that will be able to enter and exit these cages to eat and to remain protected.
“[A] fish marine farm is a completely different concept and we have several issues with it. From an environmental perspective fish farms are not very sustainable and they create a lot of problems,” says the director of Diaries of the Ocean, Jina Talj. “Our project is a restoration of destroyed habitat”.
She explains that the “biohut nurseries” project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in cooperation with “Ecocean” and will be implemented in the fishing port of Amchit.
In March, a team from the French side of the partnership will train the association involved in the project and will teach it how to install, care for and supervise the fish nursery during the next five years.
Regarding the regulations, Talj confirms, "We have so far obtained a license from the Ministry of Transport to work in the port."
The reason for choosing Amchit, she says, is that they are in contact with the municipality and the port administration there and trust their commitment to apply fishing standards, in addition to the fact that the water in the locality is still relatively clean.
One concern remains
The head of the Fishermen's Syndicate in North Lebanon, Moustafa Anous, points out, " We contacted the Ministry of Agriculture about two years ago to send personnel to control the sea to prevent hunting with gun at night. Their answer was that they do not have enough surveillance personnel.”
“Using this gun kills small fish and fishermen in the morning do not find fish as a result of the excessive use of it at night in the absence of control." Anous confirms that he is, “ready to provide surveillance personnel to control the sea, but I need a permit from the ministry".
Hanna Chawah, the head of the Syndicate of Fishermen in Beirut, echoes this resourcing risk: “Overfishing destroys fish wealth, the ministry’s observers are few, and unfortunately, they do not have authority. They inform the ministry about the violation, and at some times and places they cooperate with the security forces.”
This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author .
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