A team of FishAct volunteers has conducted research into shallow water bottom trawling in Tunisia. The results show how widespread the illegal and highly destructive fishing method ‘Kiss’ trawling is and indications for the abuse of subsidies for this illegal practice were found. The crucial importance of this ecosystem for the Mediterranean as a whole is not the only way Europe is involved.
“Kiss”, which translates to “bag” in Arabic, is a term used around the Gulf of Gabes in Tunisia to refer to small bottom trawls mounted on coastal fishing vessels of less than 15 m and used in very shallow waters, often less than 5 m deep. This fishing method, illegal under the Tunisian fishing regulation, is an attempt to escape the growing poverty that has struck the country due to the ongoing economic and political crisis. However, it is a deadly threat to the livelihoods of artisanal fishers and coastal communities, and to the unique ecosystem they depend on to make a living.
The Gulf of Gabes
The Gulf of Gabes, with its large continental shelf and its shallow waters, constitutes a unique marine habitat because of its huge Posidonia oceanica seagrass meadows, considered to be the largest in the Mediterranean Sea. More than 650 species of marine animals that live here and numerous migratory species depend on this area as a nursery and spawning ground. Cephalopods, crustaceans, marine turtles, a number of sharks and rays, some of which are listed on the IUCN’s list of endangered species and protected by international conventions signed by Tunisia, come here to reproduce. P. Oceanica meadows are also characterized by high carbon absorption rates that surpass those of tropical rainforests.
Another unique feature of the Gulf of Gabes is an ancestral passive fishing method that has been used here for centuries, especially by the fishing communities of the Kerkennah islands, called “Charfia” fishing. It consists of fixed triangular barriers made of palm leaves and/or nets, that channel fish into special chambers when the tide is retreating. These chambers contain a varying number of baskets equipped with a funnel-like opening that allows fish to swim in, but makes it hard to get out, without harming the animals that get trapped. Once the traps are set, all the fishers have to do is to visit their “Charfia” on a regular basis to empty the baskets, filtering out juvenile individuals and commercially non-valuable species in the process. This fishing method has been inscribed on UNESCO’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2020.
The Gulf of Gabes is not only crucial for the regeneration of the populations of numerous species in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, but also an ally in the fight against climate change, and home to an ancestral and self-sufficient way of life. This area faces two major threats: The industrial pollution from the phosphate industry based in Gabes and Sfax and the ongoing and growing fishing pressure and the destruction of the seagrass meadows caused by illegal “Kiss” trawling.
The report builds on a preliminary investigation in 2018 during which the scope of the problem, the size and geographical distribution of the “Kiss” trawling fleet and the dynamics behind it were investigated. FishAct returned to the gulf of Gabes in November 2022 to get an update on the situation and to investigate the trade of fish that stems from IUU fishing and explore ways to stop it.
FishAct discovered an increase of nearly 40% in the total number of “Kiss” trawlers operating in the district of Sfax: The number of vessels increased from 416 to 576 vessels between 2018 and 2022. In this period of time, a new fishing port was built in Sidi Mansour on the mainland, and the fishing port of Sidi Youssef on the Kerkennah Islands was rebuilt and enlarged. In both these ports, there were barely any fishing vessels other than “Kiss” trawlers, and the port of Sidi Mansour contained 159 “Kiss trawlers”, which was the highest number observed in all the ports that were inspected. This proves that the situation has not improved, but rather worsened since 2018.
Through a member of the fishing guard of the port of Sfax, who wishes to remain anonymous, FishAct uncovered a legal loophole used by a big number of “Kiss” trawlers to profit from public fuel subsidies destined to coastal fisheries, making this a case of state sponsored IUU fishing. A large data set of fueling operations recorded in 2021 was analyzed and evaluated.
FishAct’s anonymous source also highlighted the highly organized and coordinated way in which “Kiss” trawlers operate, flocking together in large groups of up to 30 vessels to systematically cover large areas while trawling. Through the strength in numbers the trawlers are able to deter law enforcement efforts at sea, using dangerous and potentially life threatening methods to avoid being caught by the fishing guard officers, who are left on their own and are unarmed. All this, combined with alleged widespread corruption within the concerned authorities, and insufficient human and financial resources, makes it extremely difficult for the fishing guard to perform their tasks and enforce fishing regulation on “Kiss” trawlers at sea.
Links to fish exports destined for EU member states
Tunisia’s fish exports constitute an important source of revenue for both the state (0,5% of the country’s GDP) and the people involved in fishing, processing and trade including their families. This is especially true around the Gulf of Gabes as it contains the largest part of the Tunisian fishing fleet, and offers employment for a large majority of the people working in the fisheries sector in the whole country. 80% of these exports are destined to EU member states, especially Italy and Spain. They receive more than 50%, making them main markets for Tunisian seafood.
While conducting undercover inspections in the fish export market in the fishing port of Sfax, FishAct was able to document the complete absence of controls of the required documentation, namely landing certificates that are required to be handed out by fishing guard officers upon landing of the catch, and the veterinary hygiene certificates. Through contact with a group of investigative journalists, Davide Mancini, Sara Manisera and Arianna Poletti, investigating the European trade in illegally caught Tunisian seafood, FishAct learned that the biggest fish exporters in Sfax are well aware of the fact that fish caught by “Kiss” trawlers is ending up in the batches they export to the EU. This explains that they know who the intermediaries they buy their fish from work with, but have no way of following the fish back to its source. As the main importer of Tunisian seafood exports, the EU plays a major role in ensuring that the fish it imports is caught in a legal way, and has to be a major partner for Tunisia to eradicate IUU fishing in its waters, especially in the gulf of Gabes.
For this investigation, FishAct partnered up with the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which also conducted an Investigation into “Kiss” trawling in the gulf of Gabes in February 2022. The results of both investigations are combined in a joint report that has been presented to the Tunisian ministry of fisheries and agriculture, the European Commission and the General Fisheries Commission of the Mediterranean Sea (GFCM). FishAct’s own findings and results are also presented in a separate report.
For more information, read both reports and the news articles written by Davide Mancini, Sara Manisera and Arianna Poletti here:
EJF 2023 Report:
EJF 2023 Policy Brief: