Always more fish in the sea? Lebanon's veteran fishermen disagree

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Baseball cap pulled low over his sun-weathered brow, Cedars cigarette drooping casually from his lips, Imad Qassem, 52, adroitly casts his eight-meter fishing rod into the sea. The nine meters of fishing line, bespeckled with “hashish al-bahr” (seaweed) on three small hooks glinting in the late afternoon sun, jerks through a familiar rhythm before relaxing into immobility. Qassem settles himself cross-legged on a stone parapet and takes a sip from a small cup of Turkish coffee, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of a long wait.

The location is a lower platform of Beirut’s sea-side Corniche in Ain al-Mreisseh. Cries from kaak, corn and coffee vendors hawking their wares mingle with the honking horns of cars inching through rush-hour traffic, while the movement of the tide greeting the shoreline casts ripples of white water across the rocks.

Qassem is one of Lebanon’s many leisure fishermen who continue to pursue their hobby regardless of the fact that the quality, quantity and variety of fish available off Lebanon’s coastline are not quite what they used to be.

“I come here every day after I finish work at three,” says Qassem, a Palestinian born in Lebanon who has been fishing for over 30 years. “It’s my hobby and my respite from everyday life. During the week I fish here and on weekends I head to Jounieh, Dbayye or Jbeil.”

“He is addicted,” exclaims an approaching older gentleman. Qassem recognizes the voice of an old fishing companion, smiles and turns to greet the man. Khodr Rasman, originally from the Jazeera region of northeast Syria, is in his 70s and has been fishing since he was 20.

“I used to fish more,” notes Rasman, as he passes his old friend a bottle of iced water. “Now, it depends on my schedule. It’s my favorite way to relax, but if I spend too much time here my wife gets jealous.”

Jihad Atris, 17, has been fishing for two months and has no such worries. He was introduced to fishing by a friend who gave him an old rod, and has been a fixture at the Corniche ever since. “It’s a relaxing hobby and a nice way to socialize with friends,” observes Jihad, “though it can also be very frustrating. Sometimes I sit for two hours and don’t get a single bite.”

“That’s because you don’t have the touch,” interjects Jihad’s friend Omar, who sports a Barcelona “Messi” shirt and quickly reveals himself to be more interested in shifting the conversation toward matters of football.

“You’ve never caught a fish in your life,” quips Jihad, exacting revenge for the snide remark with a stinging flick of Omar’s ear.

Qassem and Rasman look on, chuckling at the interaction between the two youngsters. Like other leisure fishermen on the Corniche, both recall a time when the sea seemingly brimmed with a variety of fish. Qassem points to a freshly caught “mwasta” (spinefoot fish), one of 10 from the afternoon’s catch. “Now, this is the only kind,” he sighs.

Perhaps because both plan to eat their catch later, they are reluctant to blame pollution for the lack of fish in general and the disappearance of certain species in particular.

“There is no pollution. If there were any, there would be no fish – they would all be dead,” reasons Rasman unconvincingly as a couple of plastic bottles bob guiltily by and an open sewage drain from Hamra empties its contents into the Mediterranean a few meters away.

Twenty meters away, Hammoud, 50, is busy attaching a mixture of crushed crab and dough to the end of his line. A stoic figure who prefers to fish in silence, Hammoud echoes Rasman’s sentiment. “The pollution here,” intones Hamoud gravely with a nod to the water, “is nothing compared to the pollution of Bashar,” referring to the embattled Syrian president. He returns to the task at hand, intimating through his body language that the conversation is now closed.

Souraya Dabbous, 57, runs “A.R. Dabbous & Sons,” a fishing and marine equipment store in Hamra founded in 1967 when her father parlayed his passion for the sea into a profession.

“The Corniche has changed a lot,” she recounts. “There used to be only old houses with brick roofs, with a smaller road passing by the houses. It was quiet and peaceful. There were no skyscrapers, there was less pollution and there was a much greater variety of fish.”

Dabbous reminisces that during cease-fires and periods of calm during the Lebanese Civil War, she and her brothers would trawl from the St. George Hotel to Manara and back.

“We would catch tuna and bonita, right there in the bay,” she recalls wistfully. “There would be mackerel, sardines, crabs and shrimps close to the shore, all of which the fishermen would catch. Now there is only one – the mwasta,” she sighs. “Oh, and there are blowfish ...”

Down in Sidon, Shadi Hussein, 31, and Yasser Abdullah, 35, both wearing white vests and floral Hawaiian swimming trunks, are having a few problems with the blowfish.

“Not another blowfish,” exclaims Hussein with a wince, reeling in his line. “They have sharp teeth and bite through the line and we can’t even eat them because they are poisonous.”

“We catch more rubbish than fish,” remarks Abdullah, taking a swig from a bottle of Almaza while Hussein repairs his line and places a worm on the end of the hook. “Before, we used to bring a basket, but now it’s not worth it,” he adds, gesturing toward the day’s meager catch – four mwastas and a “shalimoun” (straw) needlefish. A number of discarded blowfish lie deflated on the surrounding pebbles.

“It was better before 2006,” argues Hussein, alluding to the oil spill in July 2006, when the Israeli air force’s bombing of the Jiyye Power station caused a leak of over 20,000 tons of oil into the Eastern Mediterranean.

“And the rubbish mountain doesn’t help,” he adds, pointing south toward Sidon’s notorious heap of garbage and waste, which has been growing steadily since the early 1980s.

A pull on the line momentarily distracts Hussein from the conversation at hand. He furrows his brow and glances seaward in anticipation of an impressive haul ... but it turns out to be just another blowfish.

“Where is my luck?” he exclaims, shaking his head but laughing good-naturedly. “I’m glad I don’t do this for a living.”

Those who do fish for a living must navigate increasingly dire straits. The depletion of marine life along Lebanon’s 225km coastline as a result of pollution, unsustainable fishing practices such as dynamite fishing, and a lack of environmental regulations has left many of the country’s estimated 8,000 fishermen destitute. The dumping of sewage and heavy metals from factories such as copper, zinc and vanadium in the sea, coupled with coastal development projects that pay little attention to the potential environmental impact, exacerbates the problem.

And there does not appear to be a solution on the horizon. Lebanon’s last fishing law was passed in 1927 and is widely regarded as obsolete. Calls from experts for revisions to the existing law have so far fallen on deaf ears. The day is fast approaching when the classic male-bonding fishing session between father and son becomes impossible in Lebanese waters.

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