Last December, several shark attacks occurred in the South Sinai region of Sharm el-Sheikh that brought much local and international attention to Egypt’s Red Sea as experts investigated the cause of the fatal incidents.
According to experts, the biggest environmental factor was unregulated, illegal fishing in the Red Sea.
“Years before the attacks, we had tried to explain that unregulated fishing in illegal zones disrupts the natural ecosystems and causes predators to alter their diet and explore different areas, but nobody with decisive authority would listen,” says Hisham Gabr, former chairman of the Chamber of Diving and Water Sports (CDWS), an organization founded by the Ministry of Tourism.
Now, nine months later, despite statements addressing the issue from the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), which is under the Ministry of Environment, unregulated illegal fishing still runs rampant and area experts and observers say it is increasing.
CDWS officials believe that the lack of police presence throughout the country during the revolution, in combination with a reinvigorated sense of pride, has resulted in fisherman, especially Bedouins, ignoring restrictions and aggressively fishing protected areas.
“It is now common to hear that fishing nets, not lines, are being laid in national parks such as Ras Mohammed,” says Rolf Schmidt, CDWS board member and one of many witnesses of such occurrences. “All kinds of endangered fish are being disturbed, fished and killed in the process.”
According to South Sinai residents and Ras Mohammed visitors, in the spring it was common to find 70 to 80 boats fishing off the coast of the national park.
“There’s no police enforcement around to do anything about it, the ministry of environment isn’t trying to enforce the law either, and if you try to say anything to the Bedouins themselves, they’ll just shrug you off and continue their fishing or leave with their catch,” Schmidt adds.
The only visible reaction to the shark attacks from authorities, according to divers and residents, is a series of unused lifeguard towers along the South Sinai coast.
Meanwhile, severely unregulated illegal fishing in restricted zones – less than 400m from the shoreline – and in national parks, has also resulted in a number of sharks being caught in nets and fished out of the water, according to CDWS officials.
Although fishermen may say a shark catch is accidental when questioned, some observers suggest their behavior proves otherwise. Divers and residents in Dahab say they saw a hammerhead shark hung by its tail along the city’s coastal boardwalk in August. The shark was taken down after residents complained for several weeks.
“They had to take it down after a while because it was just causing too much trouble,”states Jonty Laylock, managing director of Red Sea Research, a non-profit organization run by marine specialists.
Last Sunday another hammerhead shark was caught by net in the Hadaba area of Sharm el-Sheikh. It was brought to shore, carried up to the road and thrown into the back of a truck in broad daylight, longtime Sharm resident Ahmed Sherif says.
“A police officer questioned the fisherman briefly, passed some phone calls then just let him go,” says Sherif, a professional underwater filmmaker.
In spite of the obvious environmental consequences of unregulated fishing, as well as the potential danger of attracting more sharks to shore, residents seem to maintain sympathy for the fishermen.
“The Bedouins have been so neglected all these years that they feel that it’s their turn to reap the benefits of the sea,” continues Sherif. “They just want to ensure their livelihood. They’re unemployable, uneducated and they’ve long lost privilege to the land; their only real options are to turn to illegal fishing or drug dealing.”
He says the government should provide jobs or financial incentives to reduce the reliance on illegal fishing.
Experts remain perplexed by the lack of action from authorities.
“Those in charge, appointed by the EEAA, of enforcing these laws and protecting the national parks have ensured that they maintain complete authority over these issues,” says Gabr. “Yet, most probably for bureaucratic reasons, they are unable to exercise any authoritative decisions over the situation.”
When asked how the EEAA is addressing illegal fishing, Mohammed Salem, director of the South Sinai Protectorates, said the problem is confined to isolated incidents such as Sunday’s hammerhead shark capture, which he says have been reported to him and the ministry.
However, since it was the EEAA that reinstated and confirmed fishing bans in the Gulf of Aqaba a month after the December shark attacks, experts struggle to elucidate the existence of fishery offices throughout the area.
Divers who have almost been caught in large fishing nets while underwater are also disappointed by the government’s response, according to Chiara Tyler, a diving instructor at Poseidon Divers in Dahab.
Some activists are taking initiative to address the issue with the Bedouin community.
The Red Sea Research organization is proposing alternative solutions, such as teaching and encouraging Bedouins to use fish traps instead of nets as traps are more environmentally friendly and are more selective in the species they catch.
Another proposal concerns training environmental supervisors who would be in charge of monitoring protected areas.
“We recently proposed to the EEAA and to the protectorates themselves to establish fully qualified wardens who could work within the natural reserves,” Laycock from Red Sea Research says. “We’ve shown how the project can be self-financed in cooperation with Mount Saint Catherine’s environmental center, and we’re waiting to hear a response.”