Page last updated at 07:55 GMT, Wednesday, 12 May 2010 08:55 UK

Fishing banned on the Sea of Galilee

A fisherman on the Sea of Galilee (Pic by Noam Sharon)
Fishing on the Sea of Galilee is not as good a living as it once was

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, En Gev

The Sea of Galilee has for centuries provided a healthy living for hundreds of fishermen - the disciple Peter among them, according to the Bible.

But now an unprecedented fishing ban is being enforced on the Galilee because, says the Israeli government, chronic over-fishing has severely depleted stocks.

Menachem Lev (Pic by Noam Sharon)
It's not fishermen who are to blame

Menachem Lev

The Sea of Galilee is a mythical and historical place. It was here, says the Bible, that Jesus walked on water and in the hills overlooking where he fed the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves.

According to the Gospels, when Jesus told Peter to cast his nets into deep water, "they caught fish in such large numbers their nets began to break".

From Biblical times to the great travel writers of the 19th Century people wrote about the abundant fish stocks of Lake Galilee.

The Galilee, in reality a large freshwater lake, has supported fishermen and their communities along its shores for hundreds of years.

As recently as 10 years ago there were more than 100 small boats and eight trawlers working the lake.

Famous fish

Today Menachem Lev skippers the last large boat on the Galilee but as he casts his nets into deep water he knows they won't come up full.

A heron on the Sea of Galilee (Pic by Noam Sharon)
The fishermen on the Galilee say the birds take too many fish

There are a few mullet and catfish - but alarmingly few of the large St Peter's Fish, for which the Galilee is famous.

Official figures show that as recently as 2005 almost 300 tonnes of the local St Peter's Fish were caught here.

Last year that figure fell to just eight tonnes.

Most of the fish I saw being caught out on the lake were small juveniles - very little worth keeping.

The Israeli government's response to falling stocks is a blanket two-year ban on fishing.

Menachem the fisherman disagrees.

Hungry birds

"It's not fishermen who are to blame," bemoans Menachem, who has been putting his boat out onto the water here for 31 years.

Professor Menachem Goren (Pic by Noam Sharon)
A fishing ban is tough, but it's the only way to deal with the problem
Professor Menachem Goren

"What good would a two-year ban do? After two years, even more fishermen and more boats would come back. In the meantime the cormorants and other birds that eat all the young fish would still be here."

A fishing ban would also force Menachem, and his three man crew - all members of the En Gev Kibbutz on the eastern shore of the Galilee - to find alternative work.

Another 100 or so fishermen with smaller boats, dotted around the lake, would be in a similar predicament.

It's a drastic solution, but over-fishing is the fundamental cause of the problem, say those who've closely studied the decline of stocks in the Galilee.

Red herring

Surrounded by specimen jars in his Tel Aviv laboratory, Professor Menachem Goren, an aquatic biologist, says he can come to no other conclusion.


"There are too many fishermen, with nets that catch too many small fish and there has been no management of fishing on the lake. A fishing ban is tough, but it's the only way to deal with the problem."

They still serve tasty, freshly-fried St Peter's Fish at En Gev restaurant to the coach loads of tourists who call in every day.

It's deceptive, though.

Because of declining stocks, nearly all of the fish has been bought from fish farms.

As he returns to the harbour, after a day's fishing under the sweltering sun, with yet another disappointing catch, Menachem Lev is clearly unhappy that he's being forced to hang up his nets for two years.

But it may be the only way if, as in biblical times, they'll one day again be full to bursting with fish.

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