Image Credit: Katrine Dige Houmøller

Navigating uncertain waters: Tyre’s fishing industry at a crossroads

The tranquility enveloping Mina Port in Tyre this morning is palpable. The fishing boats lie still on the water’s surface, undisturbed by the gentle breeze that typically sways them. 

In every corner, fishermen settle into plastic chairs, seeking refuge in the shadows. Some sip on coffee. Others puff on cigarettes, their gaze fixed upon their idle fishing boats.

Only two boats have ventured out to sea, their return signaling an uncharacteristic calmness. Despite the sunny weather, not conducive to fishing, there’s another reason behind the quietude of Mina Port in Tyre on this peaceful morning.

Under the warm sun, the captain and the port’s painter take a break in Mina Tyre. Thursday, March 21. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Once, Tyre stood as a vibrant hub of maritime activity, its shores abuzz with the comings and goings of fishermen. Yet, the looming specter of escalating tensions between Israel and Hezbollah has cast a somber shadow over the once-thriving fishing industry, leaving its future hanging in the balance.

“Israeli aircraft patrol the skies, and any approach triggers panic among the locals,” Sami Rozek, the head of the Fishermen’s Syndicate in Tyre, says in an interview with Beirut Today. Sami Rozek initially spoke with us in Arabic, but his answers have been translated for this piece.

A fisherman prepares his gear for the next trip in Mina Tyre. Thursday, March 21. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

In the bygone days of Tyre’s bustling fishing community, fishermen would return from their ventures with bountiful hauls, their nets laden with twenty or thirty kilos of prized catch. However, such scenes of abundance now belong to a distant past. Today, a mere handful of fish, weighing a modest four or five kilos, is all that can be mustered.

Several factors have contributed to this decline. Israeli activities disrupting marine life, shifts in weather conditions due to global warming, and disruptions to Lebanon’s delicate ecosystem have all played a role. Yet, amidst the tumult of war and the unforgiving grip of economic hardship, the resilience of Tyre’s fishermen is sorely tested.

Mina Tyre. Thursday, March 21. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Interdependence of fishermen’s livelihoods

Nestled within its storied past as a cornerstone of ancient civilization, Tyre has long leaned on its fishing industry to sustain its inhabitants. It traces its maritime heritage back to the intrepid voyages of the Phoenicians across the Mediterranean.

According to United Nations data, fish and seafood production in Lebanon rakes in an annual revenue of $377 million, supporting the livelihoods of over 4,000 families.

Mina Tyre. Thursday, March 21. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Now, the fishing operations in Tyre have been dealt a severe blow, resulting in a significant drop in catches and a decrease in sales due to the increasing security measures. Fishermen are compelled to offload their catches at reduced prices, particularly in Tyre. The absence of tourists exacerbates the fallout from the conflict in Southern Lebanon, further dampening demand.

Sami Rozek, the head of the Fishermen’s Syndicate in the city, paints a poignant picture of the challenges confronting his fellow fishermen:

“Once, we would boldly venture closer to the Israeli border, where the fishing grounds were teeming with life. But now, with tensions reaching a fever pitch, the risks are simply too great.”

Fishermen gear up for their evening trip in Mina Tyre. Thursday, March 21. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Despite now having the freedom to fish unrestrictedly in Lebanese waters, the memories from before still stir up unpleasant recollections.

“What should we do if they [the Israeli army] apprehend us? There’s nothing we can do. We can’t argue with them,” mentions one of the fishermen.

Also, the memories of Israel’s presence in Lebanon before the year 2000 are still vivid for several of the fishermen.

“They took all our fishing nets,” says one of the fishermen at Mina Tyre.

“Sometimes they would surround a fishing boat and order all the fishermen to jump into the water and swim repeatedly around the boat,” says another fisherman.

Mina Tyre. Thursday, March 21. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

These days, several of the fishermen recount how every evening and night they hear the sound of Israeli drones.

“The constant sound of ‘ssssh’ can make it difficult to sleep,” says one of the fishermen.

As tensions continue to simmer, the future of Tyre’s fishing industry hangs in the balance, with fishermen grappling to adapt to the changing dynamics of their environment and livelihoods.

Mina Tyre. Thursday, March 21. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

“The best outcome we can hope for is an end to the war. Our livelihoods, like so many aspects of life here, are intertwined with the conflict. Until peace is restored, we will continue to struggle,” says Sami Rozek.

Despite the challenges, there remains a glimmer of hope among some of Tyre’s fishermen. A cessation of hostilities and a return to stability helps them envision a future where their nets are once again filled with the bounty of the sea, restoring prosperity to their beloved coastal city.

Thursday, March 21. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.