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ENVIRONMENT-LEBANON: Coastal Pollution Threatens Fisherfolk

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Mar 3 2010 (IPS) - Pollution, oil spills and difficult living conditions are some of the challenges that fishermen in this eastern Mediterranean country face daily.

Ouzai port, south of Beirut and close to the Rafic Hariri International Airport, seems to have given up the fight against pollution: its once pristine beaches are now hopelessly littered with piles of garbage.

The port is inhabited mostly by Lebanese southerners who fled their hometowns during the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation.

“We are not real fishermen anymore; we are more like Sukleen employees,” says fisherman Maarouf Irani, jestingly referring to the waste management company that cleans garbage in Lebanon.

According to a local research company, Information International, there are about 21 ports and fishing wharves in Lebanon that serve around 2,500 boats used by some 6,500 fishermen. The largest of these ports is located Tripoli while sizeable fishing enclaves exist in the southern cities of Saida and Tyre and in the northern town of Byblos.

Abdallah Mokdad is busy picking his net clean of plastic bags and assorted rubbish. “We are hauling in more garbage than fish these days,” he says shaking his head. “Much of the waste that gets entangled in our nets comes from the Costa Brava dumping ground, which leads out into the sea. This is illegal but waste truck owners enjoy the protection of politicians.’’

According to Ali Darwich, environmental and agricultural specialist and general secretary of the non-government organisation Green Line, there are eight major dumping areas in Lebanon. “The one in Saida is the most visible and damaging to the environment because of proximity to the sea. Another one in Borj Hamoud is already sinking below water level,’’ said Darwich.

Ali Mekani, a father of four, believes that fishing is becoming a dying occupation. “We fish two or three times per day and make about 300 US dollars a month… maybe 600 dollars in the main season. Our profession has become difficult and we have no access to social security,” he says.

Mekani adds that the sea appears to be increasingly depleted of its former riches. Where he used to land some 50 kg of Sultan Brahim – a local species of red snapper – along with a few kilograms of shrimp daily, today he barely catches three kg of the fish and only a few hundred grams of shrimp on a good day.

Bad fishing practices can partially account for the problem. For decades, they relied on dynamite fishing, a method that, according to fishermen interviewed by IPS, has massively damaged the fauna and flora. “Dynamite fishing is not allowed anymore, but some fishermen are using tight mesh nets that tend to catch smaller fish and disrupt the reproductive cycle of the fish population,” Mokdad complains.

Darwich emphasises that bad fishing practices make fishermen partners in the slow destruction of the sea. “We are witnessing a desertification of the sea beds partially due to practices which prevent the natural renewal of the fish population,” he adds.

The Mediterranean is also polluted by the Lebanese sewage system which flows directly into the sea. Ouzai port is often overwhelmed by the stench from a putrid brownish stream that flows into the blue-green sea.

“Some two million Lebanese people live along the sea shore and the household and industrial wastes they produce are spilling directly into the water. One has to keep in mind that only one treatment plant exists in Lebanon, and it is responsible only for removing large particles from the sewage system and not important pollutants, such as heavy metal,” said Darwich.

A sure sign of the high level of pollutants in the water is the increasing number of dead jelly fish that can be seen floating around.

The 2006 Hizbullah-Israeli war has added to the list of woes. When the Jiye power plant, 30 km south of Beirut, was bombed it resulted in a large oil spill. As much as 45,000 metric tons of oil may have seeped into the Eastern Mediterranean as a result of the war. “The effect of these spills lasts on average about 10 years,’’ said Darwich.

In recent months there has been more bad news. Large amounts of fuel oil carried aboard the Panamanian freighter ‘Danny FII’, which sank 12 miles off the coast of Tripoli in December, are waiting to spill out into the sea whenever the containing tanks corrode and rupture.

The freighter also carried 30,000 heads of cattle all of which drowned. ‘’The floating carcasses may have lured sharks into this area and prove to be an ecological disaster,’’ worries fisherman Jamal Nasredine.

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