Our lack of rainwater, rivers and floods make for a very poor fish habitat. Fish stocks are almost wholly dependent on the delicate reef ecosystems that delight four million tourists in the Red Sea each year. By forcibly removing the fish, by overfishing their spawning ground, by destroying reefs and sea beds with nets, we are also condemning marine pelagic and coastal ecosystems of the Red Sea to certain death.
Moreover, according to statistics, the fish catch from the area of the Gulf of Aqaba, and from Hurghada to the deep-south, represents less than 2% of the national catch. In time, the Red Sea would resemble nothing more than an ugly, empty lake, and all this just for a 2% catch.
The General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD, Ministry of Agriculture) is the state agency responsible managing and controlling Egyptian fisheries. With the support of the coastguard for marine fisheries and water bodies police in the inland fisheries, the local offices are responsible for:
- issuing fishing vessel and fishermen licences;
- collecting statistical catch data;
- controlling aquaculture activities;
- managing and developing the inland water bodies;
- applying the fisheries law.
Laws and regulations do exist, some of them being ratified more than 20 years ago: Decree No. 124/1983 of the Parliament arranges and manages the fisheries resources in Egypt. The decree describes technical measures like mesh size for different fishing methods, and minimum sizes for target species, especially for inland fisheries. Subsequently, there have been some recent decrees from the national authority for management measures. Law 124/83, for example, males illegal any form of fishery in spawning grounds as it prohibits the collection and removal from the sea, lakes or other water bodies of fish fry (i.e. young or newly hatched fishes) without a permit issued by GAFRD. In addition, it is not permitted to introduce non-indigenous species into the country, except with permission from GAFRD.
The lack in their enforcement has to be seen as a major cause of the unsustainable stock depletion we are facing nowadays.
With fish stocks in the Red Sea under serious threat, following the many positive steps taking by SSDM since the end of 2007, in association with the National Parks of Egypt, the Minister of Tourism, the CDWS and the Governorate of South Sinai, in 2008 HEPCA joined together with the CDWS and SSDM in an initiative working towards declaring the Red Sea a NO CATCH ZONE. The National Authority of Fisheries issued in the August of that year a decree banning all fishing in the Egyptian Red Sea for a period of three months concurrent with the spawning seasons. Sadly, this decree was not observed and exceptions were taken to allow fishing in parts of the Red Sea. Moreover, according to Prof. Dr. Mahmoud Hanafy, chief scientist for HEPCA and environmental advisor for the Red Sea Protectorate, this solution was not enough to protect Egyptian natural resources.
In December 2008 a fundamental meeting took place in Sharm El Sheik: three Governors (Red Sea, Suez and Sinai) and three Ministers (Agriculture and Land Reclamation, Tourism and Environmental Affairs) gathered together to discuss the multifaceted fishery issue. They considered its value for the country, its impact on natural resources, as well as its social attributes. At the end of the summit recommendations were promoted and advised to address the problem and offer effective solutions that would have preserved natural stocks, whilst ensuring income for the country and the well being of local fishing communities (at least 3600 fishermen rely on the Red Sea to provide for their families).
Most of these conservation recommendations were reasserted and organised in the so called ‘Hurghada Declaration’, signed in June 2009. This declaration of principles, whilst not bearing the weight of law, stated clearly the point to promote a change and articulate its contents in the following main points:
a) Create a plan for the use of marine areas to ensure that different activities would not compete for natural resources and enhance a sustainable use of these resources;
b) Promote quick remedies for the negative impacts that activities imposed upon the Red Sea, especially on fish stocks and sensitive marine habitats such as coral reefs. Moreover, intervention to rehabilitate coral reefs were encouraged;
c) Create a plan to ensure the proper organisation of fishing activities in the Red Sea, supporting those working in this field and qualifying those whishing to work in other fields to eventually alleviate impacts;
d) Ratify, implement and enforce conservation recommendations proposed within the Sharm El Sheik meeting.
The Declaration was formulated and signed by HEPCA in cooperation with the Red Sea Governorate, the South Sinai Governorate, and the Suez Governorate, along with the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment.
Key interventions on the fishing business and operations would include the ban of all net-fishing and trawling in the water of the Egyptian Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba to the border with Sudan, a region of marine waters where only sustainable artisanal technique would be allowed. Spawning grounds were identified as ‘No take zones’ and the Declaration seeks to fully protect them from commercial, recreational and traditional fisheries. Eventually, provisions for recreational fishing areas were also made.
Waiting for a legislative support to this plan, HEPCA is still believing and lobbying for the implementation of this vision and look with concern at fishery-related issues which, if not properly and quickly managed, threaten all marine ecosystems, living of local communities and prosperity of the tourism industry in Egypt.
Law 124/1983: main articles
(art. 2) Every vessel designated for fishing shall be marked on its sides by the General Organization for Fishery Resources Development with a serial number and with a sign indicating the class of vessel and the area in which it may be used for fishing.
(art. 4) Night lighting is to be according to navigation laws and the vessel shall maintain the distance from the prohibited lanes and protected areas.
(arts. 8 and 9) Fishing vessels must operate in the licensed area and by the authorized methods as well as shall not carry nets or apparatus other than those with which it is licensed to operate.
(art. 11) Catching, sale and possession of fish or other aquatic life must be according to the length and size established by the Minister of Agriculture.
(art. 13) The use of noxious, poisonous, stupefying, explosive substances is prohibited, as well as fishing with use of bamboo traps, fish traps etc.
(art. 19) Fish fry may not be collected, removed or obtained from the sea, lakes, or other expanses of water without first obtaining a permit from the aforementioned Authority.
Do’s and Don’t’s, according to the present legal framework
- Fishery activity (including recreational) MUST obtain a regular licence from GAFRD
- No fishing practice is permitted within the boundaries of the protected areas
- Fishing is NOT allowed on coral reefs
- Spearfishing is illegal
- It is prohibited to collect or fish for the following species:
- Turtles (CITES – Appendix 1)
- Sharks (decree from the Red Sea Governorate)
- Sea cucumber (National decree)
- Napoleon Fish (CITES-Appendix1)
- Ornamental fish (decree from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries)
The community is invited to report to HEPCA and the competent authorities any violation to the regulations presented above.
How far from the “End of the line”?
Prof. Dr. Mahmoud Hanafy pointed out that that an average of 20,000 tons of fish is caught each year in the sea, far surpassing the recommended sustainable limit of between 900 and 1,500 tons. This is a common scenario, with suggested quota ignored and effective catches adding up to several times more than sustainable limits science advocates. According to recent data, we should expect the major world fisheries to collapse in a time span of around 50 years. It is hard to predict in detail the future status of Red Sea fish stocks, mainly because of a lack of baselines and systematic studies. However, information on spawning grounds and seasons are available and must be taken into consideration to promote sustainable resolutions.
Commercial, recreational and subsistence fisheries in the Egyptian Red Sea
Fishery activities in the Red Sea target mainly schooling fish like sardines, but also snappers, groupers, emperors and goatfish. Large fishing boats make usually use of bottom trawlers and purse seine nets. However, as said before, catches from the Red Sea add a very small contribution to the national economy while their impact on the health and status of fish population stocks is extremely negative.
Spear fishing and fishing trips represent a popular leisure activity all around the world. Fishermen are usually aware and conscious, following the regulations in place, limiting the range of species they catch, and respecting size limits in order not to impact the wild stocks and fishing to consume. However, exceptions exist. In Egyptian Red Sea several laws apply: fishing practices are forbidden on coral reefs. It is absolutely illegal to spearfish and recreational fishermen are allowed to operate only if in possession of the proper licence.
Coastal communities and villages, especially in the Southern Egyptian Red Sea, rely on traditional fisheries for the living of their families. Local fishermen used lines and hooks or fishing rods, promoting sustainable and selective catches. However, the depletion of stocks elsewhere in Egypt led to massive movement towards the coast of the Red Sea and issues related to the settlement of numerous outsiders were quick in emerging: they have been reported to use nets with narrow holes, dynamite, electric currents, and, more commonly, poison. Each of these techniques has devastating effects on resources, habitats and ecosystems.
Different type of fishing nets exist and most of them represent nowadays one of the major threats to marine animals and ecosystems.
Drift nets are made of nylon and have a mesh size of around 20cm, a height of 35 meters and a length of up to 20kms. This “wall” literally sieves surface and deep waters, entangling any organisms intercepted. Responsible of real massacres in pelagic waters, these nets are now illegal in many region of the world.
Bottom trawls have a footrope (the bottom lip of the net) that can be lined with heavy rollers or rock hoppers. Bottom trawlers can actually drag an incredible surface with each pass, uprooting, collecting and destroying any organism and structure present. Habitat-forming species such as corals, sponges and fish that dig burrows or build mounds no longer thrive in areas where trawling has reduced the structural complexity of the seafloor.
A common type of seine is a purse seine, “purse” because, once encircled the catch, by pulling the rope that pass through the rings on the bottom of the net, the net get close like a sack, and fish are prevented from swimming down and escape. This kind of net is used to catch fish that congregate in schools or other form of aggregations, such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies, herring, certain species of tuna. Large purse seine are reported to be as long as 1 kilometre and 200 metres deep, large oceanic purse seiners can catch several hundreds tons of fish per time.
Not only overfishing…further negative consequences of fishing
By catch: The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defined the term as "total fishing mortality excluding that accounted directly by the retained catch of target species". Non-selective fishing methods imply a large amount of accidental catches involving species/sizes/sexes of fish, non-target fish whether retained and sold or discarded, unwanted invertebrate and vertebrate species. Principal victims are marine mammals, sharks, turtles and seaboards that usually get entangled and die by drowning, starvation or laceration within the mesh of the net. Although mitigation measures have been implemented in many part of the world, none of them is reported in Egypt.
Ghost net: The term defines all nets left or lost at sea during the normal fishery activities and that, despite their economic uselessness, keep doing their work. Ghost nets can be found drifting in open waters or tangled on reef and rocky substrates, in this second scenario representing a potential hazard also for divers and swimmers.
Habitat physical destruction: Coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass beds are interconnected key habitats and provide marine organisms with food, shelter and protection to their inhabitants. Harmful fishing practices that are destroying these habitats risk generating enormous consequences that will affect the ecosystems at all levels. Since coastal ecosystems also act as a buffer to protect the shore from possible damages caused by wave and wind, any change in their structure would increase natural processes, such as sedimentation and erosion, and lead to increased impact from storms and disturbances.
As a consumer, what can you do?
Choose sustainable fishing methods. Nowadays, numerous organisations and associations can help consumers by indicating how and where they can buy responsibly and in a sustainable way. Red, yellow and green species, from those absolutely to avoid as seriously threatened (red), to those whose consumption will not affect the natural populations (green)). Look for the organisation that can provide you with the list referring to your particular region. Seafood Watch Program, for example, covers the US, whilst Fishonline, Seafood Choice and Slow Food are useful for European consumers. They produce real guides and provide you with all the information you might need.