Uncharted Waters

An increase in illegal fishing is threatening the nation’s underwater treasures By Lamia Hassan

(Egypt Today Magazine, November 2010)

Renting a fishing boat in Sharm El-Sheikh is an easy task. Numerous boats wait every day at the marina and can be hired out on demand. The types of boats vary, but there’s one thing they all have in common: a sign saying fishing near coral reefs is prohibited.

Like hiring a boat, ignoring that sign is all too easy these days. Port authorities ask few questions about fishing equipment or do little warn off fisherman from areas where fishing is banned.

“From the moment you leave the port and until you come back, no one supervises where you go fishing and what kind

of tools you are using to catch the fish or what kind of fish you brought back with you,” says fisherman Mohamed Ahmed Said, better known to his clients as Abu Ahmed. His boat, Karam Allah, plies the Red Sea waters near Hamata, a reef-rich area about 100 kilometers south of Marsa Alam. Every day, Abu Ahmed says, he is a witness to the growing numbers of people participating in illegal fishing.

It’s not an issue limited to Sharm El-Sheikh or Hamata. Since 2008, many of the nation’s waters and aquatic treasures have been increasingly threatened by illegal fishing. Though laws exist to prevent the practice, they are not enforced, say locals.

They say illegal fishing is not only destroying Egypt’s natural resources, it is also threatening the diving and tourism industries, each worth billions of Egyptian pounds.

Unprotected Areas

While the problem of illegal fishing is nothing new, those in the industry say it has become a more acute problem closer to shore and in prohibited or protected areas.

According to Ministry of Agriculture Decree no. 124, for year 1983, regarding fishing, aquaculture and regulation of fish farm, it is forbidden to fish in areas where fishing is prohibited or by using illegal equipment, or during any time that the Ministry of Agriculture prohibits fishing. Fishing boats are not allowed to have illegal equipment, such as mesh nets or spearguns, on board. The law also sets minimum size and weight limits for fish, making it illegal to buy or possess fish under the legal limits. In addition, it is illegal to remove ornamental fish from the sea except permission from the General Authority for Fish Resources.

“I go out to sea almost every day and I see how the fishermen are damaging all the resources in the areas where I work, like Hamata,” says Abu Ahmed, “leaving the fish with no chance to reproduce and continue living in the Red Sea.”

Illegal equipment such as nets with tightknit weaves are increasingly used by fishermen hoping to cash in on bigger catches – without regard for the damage the nets cause to sea life at large.

“How could we leave boats to damage an area like Hamata, where there are a variety of activities like fishing, snorkeling and even diving that generates income to all the people working in this field?” Abu Ahmed says.

A mainstay of the tourism sector, Egypt’s diving industry is worth about LE 15 billion yearly.

Hisham Gabr, chairman of the Chamber of Diving and Water Sports, says he receives complaints from fishermen reporting illegal fishing in several protectorates. Gabr says that some boats have managed to fish in Ras Mohamed and the Gulf of Al-Aqaba protectorates, damaging coral and further decimating marine life there.

“We are facing so many challenges here in the Red Sea, the major one would be that our main natural resources are being destroyed,” says Gabr. “Every day, from sunrise to sunset, there are boats fishing in Ras Mohamed and destroying the park, and we cannot stop them.”

While recreational fishing boats use fishing poles for individual catches, commercial fishermen often trawl an area, dragging large, tightly woven nets behind their boats.

“Since the holes are really tight, they not only catch some types of fish when they are smaller in size, but they also catch the baby fish that you cannot even eat and therefore damage the reproduction cycle,” says Alaa El-Haweet, a professor at Alexandria’s National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF ). “For example, at the fish market, the bolti (tilapia) fish caught by fishermen were sold at the size of 25 centimeters, but now with fishermen just catchingthem at any size, you would find the bolti now in the market are around 20 or even 15centimeters only.”

Authorities have tried to address the issue, but with little success. In 2008, a conference in Sharm El-Sheikh brought together the governors of the Red Sea, South Sinai and Suez as well as various ministry officials and experts in search of an immediate solution.

Their effort had little effect, Gabr says. “We even tried to repeat the same initiative another time in March 2009 but this time in Hurghada, and the same thing happened but nothing really changed.”

Though a legal framework has been in place to prevent illegal fishing since 1983, the real problem is a lack of oversight and enforcement.

When it comes to illegal fishing in protectorates, Gabr says it is the duty of the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs to supervise these areas. But he alleges people are still able to obtain permission to fish in protected areas because of corruption in the system. Egypt Today contacted the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs, but officials were unavailable for comment.

There is also a lack of awareness as to why these types of fishing are illegal, says El-Haweet. Many fishermen do not recognize the immense importance of natural resources to the area, let alone their future livelihoods.

Gabr agrees. “People do not understand that the economic value of the presence of these fish in the sea is billions of Egyptian pounds coming from this type of tourism; these billions will continue to be added to the Egyptian economy as long as the fish are there in the sea and reproducing.”

Finding a Solution

At this juncture, experts say it is difficult to determine how long fish populations will be able to survive, with illegal fishing practices destroying their numbers and disrupting the reproductive cycle.

NIOF ’s El-Haweet says that if laws are enforced and coupled with increased supervision and awareness sessions for fishermen, the problem could be controlled.

The government currently prohibits fishing for two months of the year to give fish a chance to repopulate. Abu Ahmed says it isn’t enough. “The fishermen still need money, and even if the government prohibits fishing for two months, they still manage to catch fish,” he says. “They are only compensated LE 90 for each day during the two months, which is really nothing.”

Despite the setbacks, people like Gabr haven’t lost hope. “During the last economic forum that took place in Sharm El-Sheikh, our prime minister announced that Sharm El-Sheikh will be the first green city in Egypt,” Gabr says. “Even as we speak, there are preparations to form a committee for it to be on top of the situation in Sharm, but it is still in the process.” et


Wanted: Friends of the Fish

Have you seen fishing boats in marine protectorates such as Ras Mohamed National Park? The Chamber of Diving and Water Sports (CDWS) wants to know. Make a note of the boat name and registration number, and if possible, document its activity with photos or video. Email the CDWS at fishing@cdws.travel with the date, time, name and registration number of the boat, location and any other useful information such as photos or video of the boat’s activities.

Washed Up

Pollution, unchecked irrigation and armed bandits decimate what was once one of Egypt’s most productive fishing grounds By Lamia Hassan

photo credit: aldakahliaikhwan

(Business Today Egypt Magazine, June 2010)

In the towns surrounding Lake Manzala, the air used to hang thick with the scent of saltwater and
the day’s catch. Along the lake’s shore, children hopped between the rails of hand-built dinghies
while fishermen prepped nets for the day. Local markets bustled from a lucrative trade that once
supplied the country with 30% of its total catch.
Located on the northeastern edge of the Nile Delta, Manzala has historically been host to one of
the country’s largest fishing communities, with over 300,000 people finding their days work in
the lake.
Separated from the Mediterranean by a sandy ridge, the lake once spanned five governorates and
was connected to the sea via several channels.
The exchange of water between the lake and sea had been largely beneficial to the Manzala
community, with the circulating waters maintaining an environmental balance and allowing fish
to repopulate with ease.
At least that’s how it was supposed to work. Over the past two decades, the situation in Manzala
has changed drastically.
“The lake was like heaven for us. We could live, fish, swim and eat out of it. Everyone would go
back home satisfied with what he got at the end of the day,” says 37-year-old Manzala fisherman
Youssry Ibrahim. “But now we are crying out for help. We can see the lake being stolen right in
front of us.”
Recent years have seen the lake shrink to a mere 25% of its original size, and instead of being
replenished with Mediterranean water, it’s being pumped full of sewage. Local wildlife has
suffered, and as a result so have the fisherman who depend on the lake for their livelihoods.
Extreme pollution has rendered the remaining fish hazardous, eliminating vast numbers of jobs.
But the combination of factors that are turning Manzala into an environmental wasteland have
seeped into the local community as well. A population influx has fueled the area’s degradation
and simultaneously sapped it of its main revenue source, leaving inhabitants of the nearby
fishing towns with empty nets and empty wallets.

Changing tides

From the edge of the shallow lake it is difficult to see the below the water’s surface. Sprawling
leaves from the Ward el Nil, or Egyptian White Lotus, have spread and now cover the lake’s
surface. The plant lives in fresh water, and while it can survive amid heavy pollution, it isn’t
usually found in saltwater.
Manzala has always been brackish, with direct connections to the Mediterranean ensuring
salinity. The fact that the Ward el Nil can grow in Manzala demonstrates the extent of the
changes that have altered the fundamental characteristics of the lake — primarily a result of
excessive pollution.
The Bahr el Baqar drain transports water 170 kilometers from eastern Cairo and feeds directly
into Lake Manzala, dumping three million cubic meters of fresh water, untreated sewage,
industrial waste, organic toxins, heavy metals and bacteria into the water each day. Hydrogen
sulfide and methane bubble on the lake’s surface, sending greenhouse gases into the air.
The Bahr el Baqar drain is one of five major drains that feed into Manzala, and their combined
discharge has decreased salinity, raised sediment levels and endangered the health of the
northern delta population.
“The amount of water coming from the drains is much more than that coming through the
channels from the sea. It changed this area from brackish water to fresh water, where the types of
fish that live in the sea would not live,” says Professor Alaa El-Haweet, of Alexandria’s National
Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries.
The lake used to host a wide variety of high-value saltwater fish. Sea bass and mullet, for
which Manzala was known, sold well in markets throughout the country. But today it seems only
a few species of freshwater tilapia can survive. What remains of the fish population in the lake
is heavily contaminated and unsafe to eat. A 2007 United Nations Development Program report
notes the extent of the damage, stating that the “tilapia show a high frequency (85 percent) of
organ malformation and discoloration, caused by environmental and contaminant stress.”
A 2009 study published in the Research Journal of Microbiology states that: “Lake Manzala
water samples as well as the fish samples were found to have very high pathogenic bacteria
contents; some of these pathogens produce dangerous extra cellular products that are virulent.”
Also mentioned in the study’s findings were high levels of ammonia and nitrates, as well as
samples of dangerous bacteria strains such as E. coli and salmonella — found in both the lake
and its fish.

But somehow this hasn’t stopped local fisherman from attempting to harvest and sell fish, though
revenues are unsurprisingly down these days. The trade quite simply seems to be hard wired into
the community.
“We don’t send our kids to school here, we all grow up working in fishing and we take our
children and try to teach them what we’ve learned. It is the only profession we know”, says
Abdel Kareem El-Refa’i, a practicing fisherman, the head of the fishermen’s union in the town
of Matareya and a member of the Lake Manzala development committee.
The continuation of fishing in Manzala does, however, help explain the growing health problems
that have emerged in the lake’s surrounding regions. Intestinal diseases have become widespread
among the populations that rely on the lake for food and water.
“Sailing your boat on the lake today is exactly like knowing that you are going to die in
advance,” says 55-year-old fisherman Rashad El-Refaie. “The lake is dead now. And whoever
eats the lake’s fish risks getting sick because of all the different pollutants.”
Rising Pollution

Authorities claim that they are working to save Manzala. From 2002 to 2007 the United Nations
Development Program collaborated with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)
to produce a 60-acre engineered wetland at the base of the Bahr el Baqar drain. Flow from the
drain is slowed by reeds planted in the engineered area, allowing sediment and pollutants to
settle while cleaner water pushes through to the lake. But while wetlands have proven to be
an inexpensive and efficient alternative to chemical treatments for polluted water, the project
was capable of treating only 25,000 cubic meters of water each day, 1/120 of one drain’s daily
As recently as 2007, the European Union was collaborating with the EEAA on an additional
segment of the Manzala wetlands project, the task being a particular concern as the lake has
increased pollution levels in the Mediterranean. That project hoped to boost treatment to 50,000
cubic meters per day, though still a far cry from making a discernible impact.
“The problem with the government’s efforts here […] is that it tried to get rid of the existing
pollution in the lake, but not to stop the actual source of pollution,” says El-Haweet.
And while local and international governments have made small gains towards improving the
quality of the lake, those who depend on it have yet to see the type of change they had hoped for.
“We are not asking for a lot, we are just asking for someone to put a strict plan [in place] to
clear Manzala of the people that are threatening us, remove the sewage water, and bring back the
water from the Mediterranean to get the fish back here,” says Ibrahim.
On dry land
In the 1970s, the government embarked on a series of land reclamation projects to boost
agricultural production and make room for urban expansion in lakeside towns.
Southern and western portions of the lake were dried and by the early 1990s, the lake was
just 25% of its former size. But the falling water levels also made water exchange with the
Mediterranean slow. And instead of replenishing water from the nearby sea, the drains that pour
into Manzala changed the basic composition of the lake.
“We grew up knowing the lake as 750,000 acres. Now they say it is only 100,000 acres, and I
can tell you that there are less than 10,000 acres for the fishermen to work in,” says Mohamed
El-Sehrawy, who represents Matareya in the local assembly and is a people’s assembly
candidate. El-Sehrawy himself was once a fisherman but the deteriorating conditions forced him
to abandon the trade.
El-Sehrawy’s decision to leave the fishing industry was by no means unique. With poor
conditions in Manzala, a large percentage of its fishermen could no longer support their families
and were forced to leave the lake. According to locals, some managed to illegally emigrate
across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece, while others were caught last year fishing off
the coast of Somalia. Another popular story among the fishermen is the high number of former
Manzala residents caught fishing in Saudi Arabian waters.

Tools used to illegally dry land

And the migration of fishermen from Lake Manzala has led to overfishing in other lakes. Last month, the fish authority in Fayoum announced that fishing will be banned until the end of June to allow fish to reproduce, as the number of fish in Lake Qaroun has decreased drastically due to excessive harvesting by record numbers of fishermen. Illegal land reclamation Nasser Aboul Naga, a fisherman from Matareya, has noticed that the decline of Lake Manzala has had consequences quite separate from the environment.
“I was out fishing with other fishermen when [bandits] attacked us,” he says, recounting an
incident from early May. “They stole our fish, took our boat and even our clothes. They even hit me and broke my arm.”
As the economy surrounding the lake has suffered, so too has the reach of public services like
law enforcement, giving way to what locals claim is an increasing level of lawlessness. While
the government continues to rent dried parts of the lake to residents, some have taken to bringing
in equipment to dry shallow sections on their own, creating small islands in the middle of
Manzala. It’s a practice that has been going on for years.
“The government would rent five acres to one person, and the next day they would wake up and
find that this person stole maybe an extra 15 acres,” says El-Sehrawy.
Fishermen and local officials have lobbied to put an end to the practice, which they claim is
contributing to rising crime rates, but according to Naga their complaints have had little effect.
“The problem is not the absence of laws, but the difficulty of applying those laws,” says El-
Haweet. “Although the law prohibits drying parts of the lake, people are still doing it. When I
was younger we used to go on campaigns to stop people, and in the end we would find out that
people of influence are backing this up.”
The practice of creating illegal islands in the lake has a direct impact on how and where the
fisherman can attempt to work, but more pressing, they say, is the wave of violent crimes
perpetrated by the island inhabitants against them.
“Across the whole lake you notice islands that people are illegally living on. They make them so
close to one another with tiny passages between each and every one, but if a poor fisherman tries
to come near them, he risks being beaten up or shot, and the authorities cannot stop it,” says El-
For their part, authorities are trying to curb the violence that has become associated with the
illegal land grabs. “We are doing our best to catch people all the time, but it is really hard,” says
Akram Hatem, head of Matareya General Authority for Fish Resources Development.
But given the progress of initiatives to clean the lake and restore the fishing industry to the
Northern Delta, residents of Manzala’s surrounding towns have little faith that the future will
bring improvements.
“Unfortunately, we neglected Manzala for a long time,” says El Haweet.
“Then, when the time came to try and save it today, we are just attempting solutions to fix the
holes temporarily.”bt