Net Profit in Israel's South?

Environmental activists are working to remove fishing nets from the Gulf of Eilat, claiming they are death traps for sea life.

Having fought for many long years against the practice of raising fish in cages in Eilat, due to concerns about pollution from fish excrement, environmental activists have discovered another danger. It turns out that some fishermen in the Red Sea resort city leave their fishing nets in the sea for prolonged periods, and these turn into death traps for sea creatures.

Thanks to the tireless labors of underwater photographer Zvika Livnat, a project is under way to take these nets out of Eilat's waters. Over recent months many of the nets have been removed, but Livnat says that quite a lot of work still needs to be done to ensure that more nets aren't left in the Gulf of Eilat.

Livnat became aware of the problem while diving on a beach in Eilat's northeastern area several months ago. He was with Shai Oren, a researcher from an intra-university team that is monitoring changes that have occurred in the area since fish cages were removed several years ago. The cages were banned after activists argued that fish excrement was damaging the coral reef in the area. "This is an area where there's no coral reef, but there is an abundance of sea life, " says Livnat. "While diving, it became clear that fishermen leave nets in the water and they become traps for animals."

"There were a variety of types of fish in these nets, many of them protected by law," says Doron Nissim, the Eilat area director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. He says that in one instance, a dolphin was trapped in the nets.

Livnat decided to take action to remove the nets. In the past months, nets that took up an area of 2,500 square meters have been removed, with the help of workers from the Nature and Parks Authority and from the city's underwater observatory project. Nissim believes all of the nets were removed, but Livnat is skeptical and thinks that some still remain.

One of the obstacles impeding the clean-up work is that fisherman are allowed to leave nets in the sea for undefined periods of time, and it is forbidden to remove the nets without their permission. "There was a case recently in which a net used to trap fish was removed from the sea. Then it was established that such removal could not be done without the fisherman's consent, and it was returned to the sea," Livnat laments.

After much discussion, a representative of the city's fishermen agreed to remove all nets that are not in use. This set the scene for the current clean-up project.

But some question the desirability of fishermen's activity in Eilat - activity that is small-scale and whose economic profitability is in doubt. As things stand, there is only one fisherman active today in a boat in Eilat and four other fishermen have licenses that allow them to spread out nets. Recently, the Eilat municipality's environmental affairs committee turned to Agriculture Minister Orit Noked (Atzmaut ) and asked her to change fishing regulations to limit the use of nets, and thereby protect sea life in the Eilat region. The environmental nonprofit group Zalul has announced its support for legislation to ban fishing of any type in the Gulf of Eilat.

The Agriculture Ministry stated: "Over the past six years, fishing activity has reduced significantly in the Gulf of Eilat. Whereas 192 personal fishing licenses were once issued in a year, this year just 19 such licenses were issued. Today, there are just five boats licensed for fishing around Eilat, and not all of them are active. As far as we know, harm caused to fish or natural resources in fishing nets is a rare occurrence. The Nature and Parks Authority is also empowered to do monitoring work" in this context.