Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Gaza's fishermen look to farms, not the sea

Dawn in gaza harbour
Gaza used to have 6,000 fishermen operating from its ports

By Jon Donnison
BBC News, Gaza

It is six in the morning at the main port in Gaza City and the sun's not yet up. From the town itself the call to prayer rings out over the water. A pink sky slowly creeps out over the minarets and tower blocks.

It's early but for the fishermen of Gaza City it's all hands on deck. The first boats are just coming in.

Hamid Saleh
Fishermen like Hamid Saleh cannot fish more than three miles from shore

Weather-worn workers unload crates of shrimps, crabs and sardines on to waiting donkeys and carts.

The trouble is, the catch is not what it used to be.

There's virtually nothing weighing more than a kilo and lots of the fish are much smaller than that.

"Since the Israelis stopped us fishing more than three miles out, fishing has been very hard," says Hamid Saleh, whose family has fished here for four generations.

"Fishing now is very weak. But what else can I do? It's all I know. There's nothing else to do here."

Narrow stretch

In 2000 Israel introduced restrictions on the areas Palestinians could fish in.

Omar Shaban
Good fish from the sea is now too expensive because of the restrictions applied by Israel
Omar Shaban
Director PAL-Think

Up until then the fishermen of Gaza used to go out into deeper waters up to 20 miles (32km) from the shore.

For the past 10 years they've been able to fish only a narrow stretch of water up to three miles (4.8km) out or risk being fired on by the Israeli navy boats that patrol the coast.

Israel says the restrictions are necessary to stop weapons being smuggled into Gaza.

Thousands of rockets have been fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza into Israel over the past decade.

For the fishermen of Gaza though, the restrictions have meant the limited area they can fish in is virtually fished out.

"There used to be 6,000 fishermen in Gaza catching 3,000 tonnes of fish a year. Much of it was exported to Israel. Now there are just a couple of hundred fishermen left," says local economist Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian think tank PAL-Think.

Psychologically as a fisherman I cannot bring myself to eat farmed fish
Munir Abu Hassira
Restaurant owner

Mr Shaban says the fishing industry has been hit hard by the Israeli economic blockade that started in 2007 because Palestinians can no longer export fish out of Gaza.

It has also made it hard to import fish to make up for the lack of stocks in the sea.

Israel says the blockade is necessary to put pressure on the Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Partial solution

Far fewer fish are now imported from Israel and many fish are having to be smuggled in through the tunnels from Egypt.

Suhail Khail
Suhail Khail's fish farm produces 500kg a month

For many Gazans, with their long history of fishing, the idea of bringing fish to Gaza is a little akin to taking tea to China.

Now though, there could be at least a partial solution - fish farms.

Gazans have tried farming fish before, but many farms were destroyed during last year's major offensive by Israel.

Through necessity they are beginning to thrive again.

"There are no fish in the sea," says Suhail Khail, who has a small fish farm just south of Gaza City.

"I asked myself how can we solve this problem and the only answer was fish farms."

Mr Khail is standing next to two huge tanks which each contain 10,000 fish.

He pulls out a net and plunges it into the water scooping out three or four small orange fish.

"These are red tilapia," he beams. "They need a couple more months and then they will be ready to sell."

Each month Mr Khail says he produces and sells around 500kg of farmed fish.

Changing tastes?

"I expect the fish farming sector to grow," says economist Omar Shaban.


"Good fish from the sea is now too expensive because of the restrictions applied by Israel. Fish from the sea has become a luxury food and farmed fish is much cheaper," he says.

"We need to support and invest in the fish farming sector but if the Israeli blockade continues it will be difficult because fish farming relies on lots of technology in order to succeed and it is hard for the farmers to get the equipment they need because of that blockade."

The question is will the fish connoisseurs of Gaza be able to turn their tastes to farmed fish?

"Psychologically as a fisherman I cannot bring myself to eat farmed fish," says Munir Abu Hassira, who owns one of the most popular fish restaurants in Gaza City.

"I like the unique taste of the ocean and seafish is better for you."

Omar Shaban is not so sure, though.

"I prefer fish from the sea, but I can't really tell the difference. It all depends on how your wife cooks it," he laughs.

But Mr Shaban says the Israeli blockade limiting the amount of fish that can be imported, coupled with the restrictions on where Gazans can fish, mean that in the future "there may be no choice other than farmed fish".

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