Simon Speakman Cordall talks to the fishermen of Tunisia about the impact on their livelihoods as the Mediterranean becomes the most polluted sea in the world

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The Mediterranean is changing, Imed says. The climate is changing, new species are entering its waters and plastic is everywhere. 

At 41, Imed Briki, like others across Tunisia, has been heading in his small wooden boat, to fish the waters off the coastal town of Tabarka. Six people depend upon Imed and his daily catch, even before he has reached the fish market and middlemen who will distribute his haul across the region.

There isn’t anything especially remarkable about Imed. Small artisan fishers have been heading out from ports across the Mediterranean longer than there have been ports. However, the sea from which they make their living, in which tourists bathe and migrants drown is changing.

The migrant landing beach at Sousse, Tunisia. Photo: Simon Speakman Cordall

“The sea’s currents are stronger,” Imed tells a translator, “They’re not the ones we’re used to and, when there are strong currents, we’re unlikely to land a decent catch,” he says, ” Fish don’t show up when the weather is bad.”

21 countries border the Mediterranean, ranging from the idyllic getaways promised by travel agent windows to the brutal realities of daily life in Gaza, Syria and Libya. Every day, across its azure waters, ships and freighters make their way, charting their path some of the world’s busiest shipping routes, while, along its shores, phosphate factories jockey for space alongside glistening tourist resorts and spas.

However, Imed is right. The sea is changing. Irrespective of the promises held by high street travel brochures, the Mediterranean is now the most polluted sea in the world. Across its 970 thousand square miles, plastics vie for space with oil and even medical waste, threatening the region’s biodiversity and the livelihoods of those who, like Imed, make their living from its waters.

Unlike the industrial trawlers, whose nets carve up the sea floor, Imed and other small, artisan fishers rarely fixate upon a single fish or type of catch. Rowing out from ports like Tabarka, or, nearer the capital, La Goulette, their catch changes by the day, allowing them to reflect the sea’s changing mood, rather than impose their will upon it.

The Tunisian town La Goulette. Photo: Simon Speakman Cordall

“Overfishing is a serious problem,” Mehdi Aissi, the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s Marine Manager said. It’s not just that the heavy industrial trawlers head in too close to the coast, threatening the livelihoods of Imed and others, but the industrial scale of their relationship with one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Combing the sea for days at a time for catches on industrial scales, their long nets draw in everything, with the dead bodies of whatever’s unwanted, “bycatch” to give it its technical term, tossed over the side. 

Sea turtles, along with rays and sharks all live in the Mediterranean. All, to varying degrees, are in extreme danger. Coral and Posidonia grass, the “lungs of the sea” are all in retreat. Off the coast of southern Italy and Turkey, monk seals can be spotted, their presence a bellwether of the sea’s good health. 

Sightings are limited.

COP15: Environmental Groups Call Out Government’s Failures on Reversing Biodiversity Loss

At every level and every stage, the encroachment of humanity and industrialisation is threatening one of the most diverse habitats in the world. 

Around a third of the world’s tourists descend upon the Mediterranean every summer, providing one of the key economic drivers for much of the region. However, it’s taking its toll. A survey of the Mediterranean islands by the University of Barcelona two years ago reported that around 80% of the marine debris in the sea had its roots in tourism. That plastic isn’t isolated to discarded bottles. It breaks down into microplastics – the small, barely visible, plastic particles that enter the sea, before spreading throughout the food chain. 

In total, around 730 tonnes of plastic waste of all kinds enter the Mediterranean every day,, Culpability is hardly isolated to any one country or any one spot. However, a WWF survey from a few years ago found that Egypt, followed by Turkey, were the worst contributors to the problem.  None can claim to be innocent.

Across the Mediterranean, industrialisation along the coast is allying with global heating to create an untenable situation, Aissi said. “Oil spills, or just the natural oil leaking from boats, all take their toll. Military testing, (undersea) as well as exploring for gas beneath the seabed also works against the health of the sea.

“Whales are especially affected,” he said, “Their instinct is to rise as quickly as they can to escape the sound of the explosive test. However, over time, the changes in pressure destroy their inner ear, which is why we are seeing so many beaching,” he said.

It shouldn’t be this way. In 1978, the 21 countries bordering the Mediterranean signed the Convention on the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea, committing to protect the waters on which they depended and issuing reports issued every six years charting their progress. However, history, with its succession of wars and revolutions, allied to the explosion in tourism, has been less than kind to the Convention, plus the myriad of other agreements signed by men in suits gathering in expensive hotels to protect the Mediterranean. 

The next report, slated for later this year, is not expected to make easy reading for any of the countries involved. 

“We are seeing entire species being destroyed,” Aissi said, “Civil societies across the region need to come together and make this clear. Concrete action has to be taken.”

Imed, along with the other artisan fishers of Tunisia will be putting out today. The weather’s been calm. It should be a good day.   


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