Sunset on the fishermen of Aqaba

Photo by Thomas Cunningham.
Generations of fishermen have taken to the waters off the Jordanian port of Aqaba. But today their livelihood is under threat from local development. Thomas Cunningham reports during a recent study tour to the Middle East.

As the sun sets over Aqaba the first fisherman drifts slowly back into the dock.

An expectant crowd gathers by the shoreline. Some call out, asking about the day’s catch and how much it’s going to cost them.

The fisherman shakes his head. Today, he’s only caught the one fish. He will keep it for his family’s dinner.

This is a scene all too common now in the fishing town, located in Jordan’s south. Increasing tourism, border restrictions and over-fishing have meant more fishermen are returning empty handed.

Dr Mohammad Tawaha, who manages the marine conservation programme in Aqaba, works with the fishermen, trying to create an environmentally sustainable industry. He says, 30 years ago there were more than 400 families fishing here. Now, there are less than 60.

In the next 5-10 years, another 15 to 20 of these families will need to find other work, he adds.

Commercial fishing is more than a job here. Fathers hand the role down to their sons, who hand it down to theirs. Men have fished on these waters for hundreds of years.

Setting off at the break of dawn, they head out everyday to try and catch enough to both sell at market and feed their families. They are looking for swordfish, tuna and sardines. Sometimes they even catch mako shark, as one fisherman did a day or two earlier.

The traditional method of dropping weighted lines into the deep water is still used today. Fishermen leave them submerged for a few hours and return at midday to pull them back up. It’s physically demanding, as they must heave up to 500 metres of line from the ocean floor, along with the weight of the catch. Sometimes they repeat the process again in the afternoon.

Although fishing does not contribute much to the economy, the culture permeates the region. Dr Tawaha says the way people dress, what they eat, and the lyrics to their songs, all come from the sea.

Aqaba is on the Red Sea, in an area that borders Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. The water is busy with traders and tourist boats, and with navy vessels patrolling each country’s border.

In 2001 the Jordanian government established the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZ) to capitalize on this flow of trade. This meant the town became a low-tax, duty free and multi-sectorial development area. Before then fishermen could go up to 27 kilometres from the shore to find fish, but due to tourism, extensions to the main port and increased security, they are now allowed to go just five kilometres.

The restriction of the fishing area has led to over-fishing and damages to the sea environment, Dr Tawaha says.

Speaking through a translator at his family-owned fish market, fishmonger Shehdah Al-Natsha says he is worried that development in the area and restrictions are killing fishing culture.

The day’s delivery of just two and-a-half boxes of fish sits at the front of his store.

Sunset on the fishermen of Aqaba
Photo by Thomas Cunningham.

His whole life revolves around fishing. In his spare time, Al-Natsha is an award-winning sports fisherman. All of his brothers and cousins work in the industry. He says, “I must try and keep the culture alive, for my sons”.

In the summer months, fish in the Gulf of Aqaba migrate south to cooler waters. The industry’s average catch of 23,000 kilograms in April falls to less than 400 kilograms in June.

During the breeding months, neighbouring countries Egypt and Saudi Arabia stop fishing, allowing stocks to replenish. But lack of regulation has meant this does not happen in Aqaba. Dr Tawaha says this reduces sustainability, but fishermen need a clear incentive to stop, during these months.

“We need to give them the solution, not the idea,” he says.

Some have found extra income taking tourists out in glass bottom boats. This offers travellers a chance to see some of the impressive sea life and provides livelihoods for fishermen during low season.

Dr Tawaha says some of the fishermen, who have been forced to leave the job completely, can struggle to let the sea go.

“I know people, they are teachers now. They go for fishing when they finish school. At two or three o’clock they still go fishing,” he says.

The sun is getting low now at the dock, as the last few fishermen arrive back. For border security reasons they are not allowed to be out after sunset. Some have had a good day, catching enough to sell.

Omar Bdair sits with a group of older fishermen, swapping stories and drinking Turkish coffee. He has fished here for 40 years and started taking his son out with him when he was just three years old.

Bdair says the dock still looks the same as when he started, but there are far fewer boats now.

The fishermen are not sure what the future holds for them. All they know is to fish and provide for their families, and as long as they can do that, their customs and traditions will survive.