Lebanon’s spearfishers fight to preserve stocks

Rachid Zock, a 38-year-old Lebanese freediving and spearfishing instructor, takes aim with his speargun, while diving off of the coast of Qalamun in northern Lebanon, in a bid to promote regulated spearfishing and raise awareness against fast-depleting aquatic wildlife. (AFP)
Updated 04 June 2018

Lebanon’s spearfishers fight to preserve stocks

  • Rachid Zock and his friends say that by promoting regulated spearfishing, they are also defending Lebanon’s fast-depleting aquatic wildlife.
  • The European Commission estimates that 90 percent of fish species surveyed in the Mediterranean are overfished,

TRIPOLI: Hunting fish with spear guns may seem like a counterintuitive way to save Lebanon’s dwindling marine life, but a growing community of freedivers argues it is a potent awareness-raising tool.
At 5:00 am, three men park their car in the northern port of Qalamun. Grabbing their fins, masks and spear guns, they board a boat and set out to sea.
Wrapped in tight camouflage wetsuits as they skim across the silvered water, these amateur underwater hunters resemble their counterparts the world over.
Rachid Zock and his friends say that by promoting regulated spearfishing, they are also defending Lebanon’s fast-depleting aquatic wildlife.
Zock, 38, a freediving and spearfishing instructor, says he has seen Lebanon’s fish populations drop in the three decades he has been exploring its waters.
“I started fishing underwater aged seven, and I used to see so many fish of different shapes and sizes. But they’ve diminished over the years,” he says.
The divers float, head down on the water like tree leaves.
Suddenly, one of them duck dives, piercing the surface as he heads vertically into the blue.
Others watch through their masks to make sure he is safe, as he fins a dozen meters (yards) down, clutching his spear gun.
He can stay down for more than two minutes on a single breath.
The fish populations living off Lebanon’s northern coastline have shrunk in recent years, fishermen say.
And the European Commission estimates that 90 percent of fish species surveyed in the Mediterranean are overfished, it said in April 2017 following a study.
The EC launched an initiative with non European Union countries — dubbed MedFish4Ever — to address the issue after a ministerial conference last year.
But Lebanon, which had 7,000 fishermen in 2014 and where fishing only makes up a tiny part of the economy, has not signed up.
Faysal Tawokji, 25, says he has been diving to set up underwater fish traps every day for 12 years.
“I was catching 40 kilos (just over 88 pounds) of fish a day in 2016 but that decreased to half the next year,” he says.
His income has not improved since.

“I’ve lost hope and decided to leave Lebanon — because of the small catches and the competition from imported fish at half the price,” says the young fisherman.
Retired fisherman Hassan Mallat, 74, says Lebanon’s fish stocks are hit by pollution, bad practices and overfishing.
“Some fishermen have deliberately tightened their net holes to grab more produce,” he says, looking up from below his old goggles.
“They are preventing small fish from growing and multiplying. Bigger fish that succeed in fleeing toward the shore to lay eggs are caught by traps.”
Spearfishing instructor Zock says that, when treated properly, the sea’s resources replenish themselves.
He gives the example of July 2006, when a war between Lebanese militia Hezbollah and neighboring Israel rocked the country.
“Fishermen stayed at home for a month. Back at sea, they noticed fish numbers had increased,” he says.
“The sea’s ability to regenerate life instigated my initiative,” Zock adds with a wide smile.
The instructor started the Freedive Lebanon club alone, but by 2017 it had 90 members, he says.
He insists that all members have a spearfishing license, which comes on condition that catching fish at night, or using any machine, is forbidden.
“Many fish sleep in shallow water at night. Spearfishing then would be a knockout blow,” he says.
After an hour of diving, the spearfishermen have still not caught anything, and move to another spot.
Soon, one of them fins up to the surface with the first catch of the day, a large glistening brown fish with rounded side fins.
Beyond their community, Zock and his fellow aquatic enthusiasts also do their best to speak to fishermen about preserving Lebanon’s underwater wildlife.
“We explain when to stop fishing certain species according to their mating and spawning seasons, and hunt others instead,” Zock says.
Several times a year, as egg-laying approaches for different species, they invite fishermen to awareness sessions.
But not all of them are receptive, Zock says.
Some fishermen “stand against our campaigns because they insist on grabbing everything they can as fast as possible,” he adds.
Lebanese law bans dynamite and poison fishing, while also since July 2010 regulating the size of fishing nets, but many complain those rules are not enforced.
Abdulkader Alameddin, the mayor of Mina’s Tripoli district, says bad practices by a few have affected the livelihoods of all fishermen.
All the municipality can do is “hand recommendations to concerned departments based on fishermen’s complaints,” he says.
But with no law enforcement, the problem persists, says Zock.
“Politicians cover for those who break the rules because those fishermen become voters during elections,” he says.
Mallat, the retired fisherman, says the government must do more.
“The government doesn’t support fishermen to abstain from work for four months a year to regenerate sea life.”
“And it doesn’t set fish prices” to ensure a decent income, he says.
Sitting in his boat, fisherman Khaled Salloum, 50, admits his tightly knotted net is prohibited.
“But if the government actually (enforced) regulated fishing I’d be first to burn my net” and use a legal one, he says.
Four hours have elapsed. One of the amateur freedivers guts and cleans the only catch of the day.
“We got our fish today,” says Jamal Hilal, 28, flinging its guts and scales into the water.
“It’s time to give back to the sea.”


At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak looks on at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP)
Updated 22 January 2020

At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

  • The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.
Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the US Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.
“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup’ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. “Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder.”
The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the Internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.
On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak’s home.
“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted.”
Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.
After the count, a celebration took place at Nelson Island School and included the Nelson Island High School Dancers, an Alaska Native drum and dance group. Later, the community took over the commons area of the high school with a potluck of Alaska Native foods, including seal, moose and goose soups, herring roe served with seal oil and baked salmon.
Robert Pitka, tribal administrator for Nunakauyak Traditional Council, hopes the takeaway message for the rest of the nation is of Yup’ik pride.
“We are Yup’ik people and that the world will see that we are very strong in our culture and our traditions and that our Yup’ik language is very strong,” he said.
For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.
“She’s sad about the future,” he eldest son Paul said.
Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said. Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and traveled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.
Lizzie and her 101-year-old sister from Nightmute, Alaska, survive.
In 1947 Lizzie married George Chimiugak, and they eventually settled in Toksook Bay after the town was founded in 1964 by residents of nearby Nightmute. There are five surviving children.
He worked maintenance at the airport. She did janitorial work at the old medical clinic and babysat.
Like other wives, she cleaned fish, tanned hides and even rendered seal oil after her husband came home from fishing or hunting. Her husband died about 30 years ago.
She is also a woman of strong Catholic faith, and told her son that she saved his life by praying over him after he contracted polio.
For her own hobbies, she weaved baskets from grass and remains a member of the Alaska Native dance group that performed Tuesday. She dances in her wheelchair.
She taught children manners and responsibility and continued the oral tradition of telling them stories with a storyknife.
Chimiugak used a knife in the mud to illustrate her stories to schoolchildren. She drew figures for people or homes. At the end of the story, she’d use the knife to wipe away the pictures and start the next story with a clean slate of mud.
“She’s a great teacher, you know, giving us reminders of how we’re supposed to be, taking care of subsistence and taking care of our family and respecting our parents,” her granddaughter Alice Tulik said. “That’s how she would give us advice.”