Gaza's Poisoned Fish
Gaza City, January 2015 (Safad Press) – Haj Abu Iyad often buys “fresh” fish from street vendors he trusts. But this time, he did not realize his luck would run out after he bought 1.5 kilograms of poisoned fish.
His wife became suspicious at the quality of the fish upon noticing its unusually tough scales. Haj Abu Iyad showed it to a neighbor with long experience in fishing only to be told that the fish was caught with banned “poisonous substances.”
Asked by him, the vendor insisted that he personally keeps some of the fish he catches for his family and sells the rest to his customers.
Haj Abu Iyad fell victim to fraud by fishermen using banned toxic substances, which damage the fish and harm the health of consumers.
During the course of a 16-month investigation, this reporter found that damage of certain fish is caused by Lannate pesticide used by dozens of unlicensed and amateur fishermen without control in violation of article 24 of the 2005 Protection Law related to fish resources. The law bans the use of poison, explosives, and chemical material to catch fish. But unlicensed fishermen exploit insufficient supervision of shops selling pesticides — the source of Lannate – and use it in fishing.
The Agriculture Ministry permits the sale of Lannate in licensed farming shops, but bans its use for fishing. The substance is restricted to fighting insects and rodents provided it is mixed according to specific safety standards, according to Dr. Jihad Salah, Director of Fishing Services at the Agriculture Ministry.
In an effort to deter fishermen from using Lannate, the Agriculture Ministry in 2014 posted signs along the coast warning against the use of poison and explosives for fishing.
Salah says that putting up these signs was aimed at “preventing violations on marine environment and protecting fish resources,” especially that “most of those using these illegal means are strangers to the profession and a few amateur fishermen.”
Stressing the insignificant few fishing in this manner, Salah says that the fish market is clear of contaminated products because amateur fishermen “keep the fish for personal consumption or sell directly to their customers.”
However, this reporter spoke to fishermen who talked about the tendency of unlicensed fishermen relying on toxic substances to catch specific kinds of fish that find their way to the dining tables of Gazans.
This reporter questioned 60 amateur fishermen. The survey showed that 11.6% blame fertility problems to exposure to Lannate and consuming fish caught with its use. Attached medical reports also link between delayed childbearing and the use of toxic substances.
The use of Lannate, a hazardous synthetic chemical classified under endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), could have significant health implications: cancer, hormonal disorders, and infertility, according to a report posted on the World Health Organization (WHO) website in February 2013. This report links between using this substance for fishing and potential long-term health effects on the consumer.
The survey showed that 11.6% of the sample questioned believe their late childbearing problems were caused by consuming fish caught with Lannate. Of those, 12.7% live in the northern rocky coast and 10.2 percent in the south.
Medical reports indicate recurring cases of late childbearing among Gaza’s amateur fishermen who had used Lannate.
This reporter analyzed the survey in collaboration with SASTEC for Consultation and Development, a specialized polling center in Gaza. The surveyed sample included amateur fishermen in Khan Younes, Deir al-Balah, Al-Shati and Al-Sudaniyah – home to 500,000 of Gza’s 1.7 million residents, according to 2013 estimates.
Rami, 39, has been longing to hold his baby since getting married 12 years ago. His face is filled with grief as he talks about his infertility and how he used “poison” when he first began fishing 20 years ago to make a living for his family.
Saad, 27, looked for extra work to save $2,000 to pay for In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) procedures — his only hope for his wife bearing a child after several tests at a specialized medical center in Gaza confirmed his infertility.
Saad says that as a child, he often helped his relatives catch fish with Lannate and went home with shares distributed to relatives and neighbors without realizing the risks posed on their health.
Dr. Sami Al-Deeb, Chief at the Food and Drugs Laboratory affiliated to the Pharmaceutical Faculty at Al-Azhar University in Gaza said he could not “determine the direct relationship between consuming poisoned fish and delayed childbearing”.
Therefore, the only way to do so is through testing the Lannate components to discover their health effects on fish consumers.
A chemical analysis of a Lannate sample conducted on September 5, 2013 showed it contains “a highly toxic chemical compound made of hazardous methomyl substance.” It is composed of a high concentration, or 90 percent, of kromac acid esters, in which one liter of Lannate contains 225 grams of active methomyl substance.
Dr. Mahmoud Taleb, head of Al-Azhar University’s Pharmaceutical and Medical Science Faculty, proves in a scientific report based on testing this Lannate sample that “the effect of this substance is highly toxic, which appears on people exposed to it after a period that may exceed 10 years.” It causes the dysfunction of different enzymes inside a human body, including biological components in the testicles, causing infertility. It also “causes hormonal and genetic damage proven in various scientific research”.
He adds that “these symptoms may appear on people — who are repeatedly exposed to the pesticide or eat poisoned fish over a period of 10 years due to the accumulation of these toxic substances inside the body, damaging hormonal activity and causing genetic changes.”
Taleb backs his opinion with a scientific theory known as “free radicals,” which contributes to “explaining several diseases caused by human exposure to toxins and bacterial contamination.” He says: “Biologists widely believe that different types of diseases, mainly cancer, are caused by the interaction of free radicals with the DNA. Free radicals are responsible for causing rapid interaction with food substances and organism cells, producing unnatural components that trigger cancer cells in the human body.”
IVF specialist Dr. Tharwat al-Hilu supports this view: “eating poisoned fish over a period of time leads to serious diseases, including impotence and risk of different types of cancer.”
Dr. George Karzam, Environmental Specialist at the Development Action Center (Ma’an) outlines the risks of using Lannate for fishing in a scientific report on the risks of chemical pesticides. He classifies it as hazardous chemical substances under carbamic pesticides, which comprises carbamic acid esters, known as acetylcholine enzyme inhibitors.
This report links between using this substance for fishing and consumers’ long-term potential risk to cancerous and fertility diseases. “Exposure to this pesticide also leads to a host of symptoms, including reduced sperm count and fertility due to damaged testicles,” according to Karzam.
Abu Hani Saadallah, a fisherman for 30 years, says that the use of poison for fishing was more common in the 1970s when “Gaza was under Israeli military administration with insufficient control on fishing, which encouraged taking the easy way through poison.”
Abu Mohamad, another fisherman, explains how Lannate is used for fishing. Small pieces of bread are soaked in Lannate until they are fermented. Then these pieces are scattered along the rocky shores to catch three types of fish found there. Upon catching them, the fishermen gut out the fish in an attempt to remove the toxins they consumed, he says.
But in his scientific report, Dr. Taleb says that “this does not in any way mean they have removed the substances’ toxic effects because toxins stored inside the fish can impact the health of consumers after a few years”.
Kamal Eid, professor of agriculture at Al-Azhar University, says Lannate was overused several years ago to kill the harmful insects in vegetable fields.
The Scientific Research Foundation (SRF) concluded in a study published in 2008 that pesticides affect bees, birds, and fish, causing tumors in the liver, fetal deaths, and infertility.
Before taking a Lannate sample to the Al-Azhar University laboratory, this reporter toured shops selling agricultural goods in the Firas Market in central Gaza. Upon asking for Lannate, a shop keeper did not hesitate to easily sell the product without asking any question.
A dozen shops, all supervised by the Agriculture Ministry, sell different types of hazardous pesticides without any prescription in violation of Article 4 of the Agriculture Minister’s Decree 1 of 2002 regulating the trade of agricultural pesticides. The licensee if banned from selling such substances without a recommendation from an Agriculture Ministry official or a certified agricultural expert.
One shopkeeper, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that he sells most of the pesticides without an agricultural prescription He adds that several farmers do not follow guidelines when using them.
Most agricultural pesticides in the Gaza Strip are brought in through border posts with Israel or are smuggled from Egypt.
According to the Agriculture Ministry’s 2010 annual report, approvals were granted for registered and licensed companies to import 146,482 kilograms of different types of permitted agricultural pesticides.
Dr. Saud al-Shawwa, an environmental activits and head of Vetco, a veterinary and medical center, calls for boosting control on the sale of pesticides and restricting them to farmers with prescriptions from a licensed agricultural engineer.
The Director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Fishing Services says that the ministry supervises shops selling agricultural pesticides. But he adds that the responsibility of monitoring the markets also lies on other parties along with the Agriculture Ministry including the Economy Ministry’s Consumer Protection Department, the Health Ministry, and the Gaza Municipality as “everything sold in the fish markets is primarily considered food products”. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Ministry and other concerned parties “carry out their role to the fullest and their inspectors visit shops selling agricultural pesticides to ensure they are not used for other purposes.”
But it acknowledges that “there are a few offenders, mostly unlicensed or amateur fishermen, abusing these substances.”
The ministry “does not tolerate fishermen proven to have used illegitimate means for fishing,” and “offenders are arrested and prosecuted.”
The ministry also says that the amount of fish contaminated with harmful substances “does not exceed 1 percent of fish caught with such means near the rocky shores”.
Gaza’s fishermen catch nearly 2,000 tons of fish a year but the number changes depending on the level of the Israeli blockade. According to the Agriculture Ministry’s annual report, Gaza produced 1,724 tons of fish in 2010. This number increased to 2,000 tons in 2013, according to Nizar Ayyash, president of the fishermen’s syndicate in the Gaza Strip.
On his part, Dr. Raed al-Jazzar, General Manager of the Consumer Protection Department at the National Economy Ministry, says that his ministry monitors all commodities and products reaching consumers. He indicates that his department’s inspection teams have confiscated “only 2 kilograms of fish caught with Lannate” in 2013. He says that the fish was confiscated from an “unlicensed fisherman” selling in the street.
Al-Mizan Human Rights Center released a report on May 19, 2014 on the “challenges of food control in Gaza and absence of the right to obtain safe and healthy food.” It talked about the shortage of human resources at the Agriculture Ministry in Gaza, saying that it has 125 agricultural engineers, including 25 specialized in crop protection, who monitor dozens of shops selling pesticides and thousands of farmers.
It said that the shortage of specialists “leads to severe lack of control on pesticides and their use.” The center’s report warned of “serious implications on the health of consumers,” noting that the level of contamination found in food samples in most of Gaza’s governorates in 2013 reached 23.6 percent, including 14.9 percent chemical and 24.9 percent bacterial contamination.
Mahmoud al-Aas, head of the private Al-Tawfiq Society for Fishermen in Gaza, calls on the Agriculture Ministry to boost control to “end the ability of anyone using poison for fishing.”
According to a 2013 report by the Palestinian Human Rights Center, the Gaza Strip had nearly 7,000 fishermen supporting 70,000 people. But this number declined to 4,500 fishermen since Israel imposed the blockade in 2007, reducing the fishing area from 12 to 6 nautical miles off the shore.
Article 32 of the Palestinian Environment Law of 1999 bans all activity that may “pollute sea water in violation of standards and conditions related to marine environment protection.” Furthermore, Article 41 of Chapter 5 on nature protection stipulates the “banning of fishing, killing, or catching wildlife, marine animals and fish, in addition to prohibiting the destruction of their nests and eggs.”
According to Articles 32, 38, and 39 of the Palestinian Penal Code, the penalty for offenders includes a fine of 5,000 (Jordanian) dinars (approximately $7,050) and a minimum of one to ten-year prison sentence.
Ayyash, head of the fishermen’s syndicate in the Gaza Strip, indicates that the amount of fish caught by fishermen declined from 4,000 tons a year in 2007 to 2,000 tons in 2013 after Israel reduced the permitted fishing area. He also cites fishermen’s frequent use of nets with holes less than 9 millimeters in diameter to catch small fish, known as “fish seeds.”
This reporter documented on video the squandering of thousands of small fish and marine creatures thrown back into the sea because of overfishing.
Dr. Abdul Fattah Abed Rabbo, professor of biology and environmental science at the Islamic University, says that catching fish seeds endangers several marine species and destroys biodiversity in marine life.
This investigation was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism ( ARIJ), and coached by Benaz Batrawi.