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For years, the Ben Ezra Hadayag (Ben Ezra the Fisherman) fish restaurant in the northern town of Atlit has tried to preserve a Mediterranean culinary tradition. Instead of being offered a fixed menu, customers are free to choose their meal from the catch of the region's fishing boats. However, points out Ofer Ben Ezra, whose family founded the restaurant over three decades ago, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain this custom.

"There are fewer fish in the Mediterranean," he explains, "and the days of the big catches of fish like barbuniya [muleet hapassim, Red Striped Mullet] and locus [deker hasela'im, White Grouper] are over. In the meantime, people have already grown accustomed to eat fish that were grown in fish ponds or offshore floating fish cages."

Recent data garnered by scientists and the Agriculture Ministry's Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture supports Ben Ezra's words: The quantity of fish in the eastern Mediterranean is steadily decreasing because of overfishing and pollution.

Furthermore, another threat to the fish population has now been added, and that threat is changing the composition of marine life in the region. In recent years, various species of marine invaders have begun to plague the maritime population of Israel's coastal waters. These invaders are pushing out local species of fish and are competing with them for food and living space.

"In the past, fishing boats would return with 100 or 200 crates of barbuniya and locus," laments Ben Ezra. "Today, you are lucky if you can bring back a catch of a few hundred fish."

Prof. Menachem Goren of Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology and Prof. Bella Galil of Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research (IOLR) are currently researching the size and composition of the fish population in Israel's coastal waters. Goren and Galil rent the services of veteran fisherman Levi Ornoy's trawler, whose catch is brought in every six weeks for sorting. On two occasions, the scientists employed the services of similar fishing boats operating along Turkey's coasts; they wanted to investigate the state of fishing there and draw a comparison between two regions, which have similar environmental conditions.

According to Goren and Galil, the findings point to the dismal state of marine life in Israel's coastal waters. "Our findings indicate that the the average catch in Israel is six times less than the average catch in Turkey," notes Goren. "The average weight of a fish in Israel's coastal waters is 12 grams, as opposed to 60, and sometimes 115 grams in Turkey."

About 80 percent of the 60,000 fish caught in the region of Ashdod port were smaller than a typical portion of fish (100 grams, or 3.5 ounces). "In other words, nearly everything that the fishing boats catch is worthless and the fish that have been caught have to be returned to the water," notes Goren.

Red Sea intruders

When the kinds of fish caught in the fishing nets are examined, it becomes clear that many of them belong to invading species that have reached the Mediterranean from the Red Sea via the Suez Canal. About a third of the species caught in the trawlers' nets are invaders. Among the crabs, the invading species constitute the vast majority: some 90 percent of the catch. "Some species that we just started to notice a few short years ago have already become a significant part of the catch in Mediterranean waters," notes Goren.

The invaders push out local species, competing with them for food. The result is a change in the food chain, and that change enables the invading species to enter the Mediterranean. These species quickly adjust to their new conditions, and their presence further aggravates the problem because they prey on the eggs and food of indigenous species, pushing them away from their food sources.

"The bottom line," says Galil, "is an impairment of the local species' capacity for self-renewal and natural increase."

"The [Ministry of Agriculture's] fisheries department must be managed on the basis of scientific data," insists Goren. "And that management must include the banning of fishing in certain areas, as is the practice in many countries.

"In any case, a large portion of the fish consumed in Israel is imported," points out Galil.

Haim Anjoni, Director of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, says that currently 25 trawlers operate in Israel's coastal waters and these are the vessels that come up with the major fish catches. In addition, there are hundreds of smaller fishing vessels that do not use trawls dragged along the ocean floor. He points out that the quantity of fish caught by the trawlers preserves the stability of the fish population, although, he admits, there has been a significant decrease as far as the other types of fishing activity are concerned. Sometimes, he notes, we are faced with a "catastrophic situation."

One step being undertaken by the department to deal with the present state of affairs is a freeze on new fishing licenses. Nevertheless, scientists are claiming that an overall plan for managing the fishing industry in Israel has not yet been implemented. That plan, it should be added, includes the suspension of fishing in certain areas along Israel's Mediterranean coastline.

According to Anjoni, some of the factors behind the deterioration in Israel's fishing industry are beyond the ministry's control: for instance, the pollution of the Mediterranean and the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt. The dam has stopped the flow of fertilizing materials from the Nile River into the Mediterranean. As a result of the obstruction, the fish in Israel's coastal waters are being denied an important source of food.

Last month, the department announced the institution of a new plan for managing the fishing industry; this plan calls for the reduction of the existing fishing fleet by 50 percent. Under the plan, the department will pay the operators of fishing vessels to scrap their boats, and certain areas of the Mediterranean will be closed to fishing, so that the fish population can replenish itself. "We intend," says Anjoni, "to encourage fishing in deeper parts of the Mediterranean, where there are more fish, and to promote the use of escape nets that enable fish that are too small for human consumption to flee."

The success of this program depends to a large extent on the Finance Ministry agreeing to transfer a budget for the implementation; so far, that agreement has not been given. According to Anjoni, even if the Finance Ministry does not provide the necessary assistance, the state of the fishing industry in Israel can still be improved: "We will take stronger enforcement measures to battle illegal fishing and we will implement the plan for closing certain regions to fishing. These two measures do not require a special budget, and, if we manage to successfully undertake them, we might see an improvement in the situation within a few years."