Raqqa, Syria – Nearly three decades ago, indigenous fish species were abundant in the Euphrates.
Today, recreational fishermen must spend many hours to catch at least one fish. Often they return home empty handed.
The use of prohibited fishing methods including dynamite, electric shock, chemicals, poisons, and asphyxiating gasses, has over the years destroyed the aquaculture and put consumers’ health at risk.
The governorate of Raqqa, 550 km northeast of Damascus, covers an area of nearly 20 thousands square kilometers which represents 10.1% of the total area of Syria. It is one of the richest Syrian governorates in terms of fish resources due to its large areas of fresh inland water, in particular, Lake Assad (Buhayrat al Assad) which covers over 460 km2 and Lake al Baath (25 km2.) The Euphrates river also flows for 160 km through Raqqa at an average width of 300 meters. The governorate also has several small closed lakes such as Lake Ma’dan, al Jabali, Dalha, and Ali Bajlia in addition to streams and irrigation canals.
Raqqa produced some 4,000 tons of fish from rivers and fish farms in 2006 according to the local department of agriculture. It accounted for 28% of Syria total freshwater fish production of 13,800 tons. This compares with sea fish production which totaled just 3,400 tons.
Fish production from rivers and farms increased by only 8% between 1997 and 2006 in Raqqa, while its population grew 25% during the same period.
Overfishing was most probably the main cause of the modest increase in fish production from the Euphrates basin, officials said.
The General Establishment for Fish (GEF) whose headquarters are located in the coastal city of Jabla, supervises sea and inland fish production. It uses marine fishing boats and manages fish farms, especially in the Euphrates basin.
“GEF sold its inland catches and farms production at a very low price this year, nearly at cost price. Wholesale prices did not exceed 85 to 87 SL per kilogram for Tilapia fish, while Carp was sold at a maximum price of 100 to 110 SL despite the high price of fish feed and fuel and the increase in wages. The retail price averaged 105 to 125 SL per kilogram,” said GEF General Director Adib Saad. (One US Dollar is equal to 50 SL.)
Despite the low prices, “GEF has been unable to sell the 2,000 tons it has produced so far this year (until May 2008.) The competition from imported frozen fish or those smuggled into the country and sold at low prices is a major reason for this even though the condition of these fish may threaten consumers’ health,” Saad added.
More problems ..
Beyond the problems related to the commercialization of GEF production, fishermen in the Euphrates basin suffer from other factors caused by increased illegal fishing while legal fishing practices decreased.
“For many years, I used to catch approximately 200 kg of fish daily using my net. Now I am unable to catch more than 50 kg per day of mainly small fish that people don’t much like,” said Mohammad, a 50-year-old licensed fisherman who has been fishing in Euphrates since 1984.
Mohammad believes that dynamite fishing, in particular, is the main cause for his catch drastically diminishing. “Dynamite not only kills the fish that are directly hit in the deep layers of the river but spread panic in a large area around the explosion site, causing the other fish to swim far away.”
Indigenous and cultured fish species and other aquatic life abounded in Raqqa inland water and huge human and financial resources were needed to preserve and protect them.
Unfortunately, the resources, including staff and money devoted to this task were so modest that the protection and preservation efforts were nearly meaningless. It could be compared to a fragile boat struggling unassisted in a storm-stricken ocean.
Only 50 full-time workers occasionally assisted by 40 seasonal workers have been appointed to protect a very large area that covers 80,000 hectares of lakes, streams, and irrigation canals, in addition to the long stretch of the Euphrates.
In these areas approximately 230 licensed fishermen are active according to the local department of agriculture, alongside with an unknown number of unlicenced fishermen most of whom use illegal fishing methods. To show the huge extent of the problem, it is worth mentioning that 83 power generators were seized in 2007 by the fisheries protection services.
Main species nearly extinct ..
Illegal fishing methods caused 20 fish species that live in the Euphrates to become extinct. Nowadays, fishermen celebrate as if they won the lottery when they catch a Farkh, Mejnas or Roumi fish, some local fish varieties that have become extremely rare. One kilogram of these fishes would sell for 250 SL (nearly 5 US $). Nowadays, even the previously abundant carp fish is only available in moderate quantities and fishermen mainly expect to catch ordinary local varieties that still exist such as mullet, Motwaq, and Jarri that sell for a modest sum of 60 to 130 SL the kilogram.
Fishing is considered a crime during the spawning season. Nevertheless, this does not stop overfishing activities even though protection services have intensified efforts to chase violators. But, protection services suffer from a lack of staff and equipment and find that they themselves need protection sometimes.
Twenty-five power generators were seized during the “prohibition period” this year, in addition to 100 metal boats, 370 fish nets, and four cars, according to official documents.
On the 20th of May 2008, Yassine, a 30-year-old fisherman caught a fish from which he extracted about two kilograms of eggs, during the spawning season.
Ironically, during the same period in April, the head of Raqqa Department of Animal Production, received a strange call. “We are committing a criminal act against fish, Professor,” said the voice. The man claimed catching a 24 kg fish that day. 5 kilos of eggs were taken out of it. His being aware of committing a “crime” did not stop him or the fishermen accompanying him from pursuing their illegal activities for even one day.
“Were we able to protect fish during the spawning period, Euphrates basin would alone produce enough fish for the whole country,” said Agricultural Engineer Abdel Aziz al-Ali, ex-member of the executive bureau of Raqqa Agriculture department.
Electric shock fishing, an additional cause for fish extinction.
The problem goes back to the mid-1970s, after Euphrates dam was built and Buhayrat al Assad was created, explained Dr. Essam Krouma, Director of the Fisheries Resources at the Ministry of Agriculture.
“GEF started a project to study the lake fertility and classify fish species living in it in cooperation with the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). German experts used the power generators designed specifically for biological studies that generate the electromagnetic field to attract fish without harming them,” Krouma added.
“Some workers observed the experiment and got the idea of using generators available in the market to generate alternating current that in fact kills fish. This easy and lucrative method tempted traditional fishermen who progressively abandoned their fishing nets to increase their catch from 10 kg to nearly 200 kg per day,” he said.
The situation grew worse over time, especially since the law on the preservation of aqua life did not refer to the illegal electric shock fishing since it was not then known.
“Using electric shocks brings me an income three times greater than what I would get using a net for the same working hours,” said 40-year-old fisherman Jasim.
“A fisherman gets 1,000 SL from selling the catch of his net of undesirable fish species after working five hours while using electric shocks assures an income of 5,000 SL for catching a larger quantity of more desirable varieties,” said fisherman Mohammad.
Some use poisons..
Regardless of the health risks, consumers may face some fishermen are tempted to use poisons to get a larger catch relatively easily. All they need to do is spread a small quantity of Lannate (commercial name of pesticide methomyl that is sold as white powder), and the fish will float on the surface in few minutes. This method is usually used by adolescents and young people in closed lakes, streams, and irrigation canals.
“Swallowing a small quantity of Lannate poison may cause symptoms including runny nose, excessive salivation, nausea, vomiting, sweating, excessive bronchial secretion and muscle twitching followed by flaccid paralysis. In case of severe poisoning and of late intervention, gastric lavage may not be useful since Lannate enters the bloodstream after being absorbed by the body,” said Dr. Ahmad Ali, a toxicologist and anesthetist practicing in the coastal city of Tartous (north.)
“Lannate is capable of exterminating aquatic life as it dissolves in water,” Dr. Ali added.
Although a dangerous chemical, Lannate is even sold in spice and perfume shops, known locally as Attarine shops. “The use of Lannate should be strictly controlled and its sale restricted to agricultural pharmacies upon prescription by an agricultural engineer,” insisted veterinarian Ibrahim Abbo.
In addition to Lannate, some use calcium chloride, a chemical used in tanneries, to increase their catch. This toxic chemical exists in the form of granular powder which violators dissolve in water and spread in narrow water canals after they have set up a net a 100 meters away to catch the dead fish floating on the surface.
A barrel of this toxic chlorine was seized with fishermen in Fakhikha village on the bank of Euphrates after they had spread the toxic chemical in an irrigation canal. The violators had caught five kilos of fish using calcium chloride, according to the police (Record of Evidence No. 266, dated October 2007.)
“If not washed immediately, fish caught using chlorine turn blue and smell strongly just after 15 minutes,” assured veterinarian Mohammad al Mohammad, the ex-president of the Centre of Fish Resources in Fakhikha village.
“This type of chlorine is usually used in tanneries and its use is supposed to be rigorously restricted given its high toxicity, but it apparently falls (into the wrong hands.) It is completely different from the chlorine used to sterilize drinking water,” al Mohammad added.
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), in force since 2004 explains the risk of the chlorine, as a toxic element, on aquatic life.
In order to prevent health risks as a consequence of improper fishing, the Ministry of Agriculture issued in 1965, Resolution 1983 of which article 5 specifies measures to control the commercialization of fish and other aquatic life. The article states that fish should be “examined in the open markets by vets and aquaculture controllers. Decomposed items or those inappropriate for consumption as well as those caught using dynamite, poisons or any prohibited method affecting public health should be confiscated.”
“But, fish markets do not too often undergo health control while GEF controls the fish it sells to the market,” explained the head of the General Establishment for Fish.Ecological imbalance ..
Overfishing not only affects aquatic life, it has also created an ecological imbalance in the Euphrates basin. For instance, Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) and Silver Carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) feed on aquatic macrophytes that infest and pollute Euphrates water that are locally known as “al-zel” (Azolla) and other herbs. With the extinction of these fish, the region is witnessing a macrophytes outbreak, especially in Lake al-Baath and stagnant ponds. The situation is getting worse since authorities have not yet re-introduced the cultured carp species and illegal overfishing continues under weak protection and dissuasion measures.
An attempt to re-introduce both fish species was undertaken by Raqqa Department of Animal Production with German funds. Two hundred and twenty fingerlings of grass and silver carps were stocked in Lake Al Baath. They were developed from imported larvae from Hungary between 1990 and 1995. This first project of its kind was aimed at producing millions of fish that would feed on the unwanted plants and clear the water. Unfortunately, electric shock fishing killed the baby fish and the lake was again infested by floating plants.
Paradoxically, where public efforts failed, private projects proved successful. The owner of a small fish farm close to the site of the project bought some fingerlings and stocked them in his fish nurseries. Protected, the larvae grew into adult herbivorous fish that were able to clean the farm from the invasive plants.
Similarly, other fish farm owners successfully repeated the experience.
A second official attempt to stock grass carp was undertaken in 2007. Fingerlings were this time distributed to poor families in Wadi Feid Lake who were allocated small portions of the inland water. The Syrian-German project named “Project 10070” was designed to achieve two goals: Raise the living standard of the families living in the valley, and clear the water of aquatic macrophytes.
The project supervisors hope it will achieve its goals since the ecological requirements are also serving the interests of the beneficiaries. The role of international organizations
The Small Grants Programme (SGP) funded by the Global Environment Facility, a part of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), provides financial support to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to a maximum of $50,000 to fight ecological problems and restore biodiversity.
In late 2005, Dalha Fish Association in Raqqa governorate received $44,000 to rehabilitate Lake Dalha through fighting overfishing and stocking fingerlings of extinct fish. The goal was to enhance the living standard of approximately 1200 people living by the lake and for whom fishing provides and additional source of income.
The pilot project succeeded in putting an end to electric shock fishing in the lake, said Ahmad al Abed, head of Dalha Fish Association .
Under the supervision of SGP, awareness campaigns were carried out among fishermen on the negative effects and consequences of prohibited fishing methods that decimate small and large aquatic life, explained Ahmad al Abed, head of Dalha Fish Association.
Fishermen were also sensitized towards overfishing negative consequences and the ecological problems ensuing from using electric shock and poisons to catch fish. A part of the campaign focused on warning fishermen of the penalties they may suffer if they were arrested using prohibited fishing methods.
Thirty five fishermen living by Lake Dalha participated in the seminars in the framework of the project that was planned to continue until the end of 2008.
This investigative report in cooperation with ARIJ, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (www.arij.net) under the supervision of coach Ibrahim Yakhour