Where have the fishermen gone?

by Sarah on October 25, 2011

fishing in jaffa

Jaffa, off the broadwalk

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.

fishing in jaffa port

Jaffa Port, Israel

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.

fishing in tel aviv

The port (Hanamal), Tel Aviv

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.

sea in herzliya

Winter sea in Herzliya

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.

fishing in jaffa

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.

fishing in akko

Port of Akko

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Yaelian October 25, 2011 at 11:33 pm

What an interesting post,and I love that picture with the fisherman and the bird.
It is sad that the Mediterranean is running out of fish:(
Fishing used to be one of my favourite pastimes as a kid…


Sarah October 26, 2011 at 4:33 am

Thanks Yaelian


Sally - My Custard Pie October 26, 2011 at 1:05 am

I recommend ‘In at the Deep End’ by Jake Tilson as an informed and entertaining (as well as beautifully designed) book about fish and fishing. Interesting post as always.


Sarah October 26, 2011 at 4:33 am

Sally, Thanks for the recommendation


Rebecca October 26, 2011 at 5:15 am

Your pictures are really really great!


Sarah October 26, 2011 at 5:28 am

Thanks Rebecca!


foodwanderings October 26, 2011 at 7:30 am

That is good to know that fishing is banned from the Kineret. I am also happy that fish farms were closed down near Eilat. the environmental hazard they posed to the the sea there was ongoing for too long. My son is taking a fishery class this semester as part of his Environmental Science college studies. You should watch or probably already familiar with Dan Barber’s video talk ‘how I fell in love with a fish’ It’s fascinating!!


Sarah October 29, 2011 at 11:25 am

Thanks Shulie, I appreciate the recommendation. Your son’s course sounds fascinating, its been a long time since I toured the fisheries in Eilat and the Negev.


lisaiscooking October 29, 2011 at 6:14 am

So interesting! I’m always reading news about fishing concerns and sustainability issues related to fishing. I’m currently reading the book Four Fish and am in the chapter about the the dwindling numbers of salmon around the world. Thanks for this info!


Sarah October 29, 2011 at 11:27 am

Thanks Lisa, More countries should manage their fishing industry like Alaska, a very regulated system with the goal of sustainability.


Turkey's For Life October 31, 2011 at 1:27 am

Great post and love your photos. The Mediterranean is so overfished. I love to watch the boats returning to Fethiye in the mornings (thankfully, they’re all small boats) but whenever we go to the fish market, I worry about what we see. Baby seabass and seabream are given different names as if they’re a different breed. All fish that should go back into the water. Interesting initiatives you wrote about there. Will look into those.


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