Commercial fishermen are a dying breed in Israel, along with the fish they once caught. The Eastern Mediterranean is a watery desert.
Scuba Diving off the Tel Aviv coast is the antithesis of the energetic city. Even fifteen years ago there was nothing much to see but a plague of jelly fish and one lone octopus. (This paucity of life did nothing to deter my fears that I would be eaten by a shark and my time underwater was spent bug eyed with fear.)
The casual fishermen I meet on the beach or wharf all say the same thing. “There used to be fish here, but now there’re gone”. They blame the big boats, relentlessly harvesting the sea and leaving nothing behind. Only tiny fish are left and perhaps a few farmed fish that made a great escape.
Still fishermen show up in the early morning (perhaps to get away from nagging wives, I’m told). They may leave empty handed but gain a few hours of peace.
It wasn’t always this way, “We’re catching fish the size of the bait we once used”, laments one fisherman in Palmachim Beach, south of Tel Aviv. Overfishing and pollution have shifted the balance of this fragile ecosystem. Although the Mediterranean stretches from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Port of Jaffa, a large percentage of it is empty and always was. Most of the fishing is focused in the shallow waters off the coast known in geology as the continental shelf. Beyond this point, the water quickly plunges to a depth where sunlight is unable to penetrate and where life disappears into darkness. Almost all marine life forms (aside from the mysterious organisms living off the volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean floor) are linked to photosynthesis and are located within the first few tens of meters of the water’s surface.
Meanwhile, the Israeli appetite for fish and seafood has only increased and the local catch is just not enough. To supply the demand, fish are either imported or farm-raised, which pose their own ecological difficulties. The carbon footprint needed to fly over thousands of fish is not negligible while the accumulated waste created by sea farmed fish is detrimental to the environment.
Israeli engineers and marine biologists have taken fishing to unexpected places- the Negev Desert. From the outside it looks like large greenhouses but instead of tomatoes and peppers, sea bream and bass are being grown. Samuel Appelbaum, of the Desert Research Center of Ben Gurion University, has developed innovative ways to use the geothermal waters found in the Negev. The system is multileveled, reusing the water to cultivate a variety of fish and crustaceans. The resulting effluent is used as fertilizer in nearby fields and groves.
Another research and business group aptly named Grow Fish Anywhere have designed a very sophisticated method of fish farming which can be implemented in all climates and locations, even miles from a water source. The inventors and masterminds of this project, Dr. Yossi Tal and Hebrew University professor Jaap van Rijn, use bacteria to metabolize the byproducts remaining in the tanks, cleaning the water so it can be recycled.
If these technologies are more widely implemented than perhaps the pressure on the seas and oceans might mitigate. For now, Israel has taken drastic steps and banned commercial fishing completely in the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) in the hope the fish population will return to normal.
Ill management of the fishing industry is not solely an Israeli problem, but one that spans the Mediterranean and beyond. Use of Innovative solutions and educating the public about responsible consumerism is not enough. International cooperation is also essential to create a sustainable relationship with the sea.