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A week and a half before the nation sits down to its holiday dinners, there are some already enjoying rich meals of fresh fish.

No fewer than three tons of live tilapia (also known as St. Peter's fish) have already been dumped into the lake at Hula Nature Reserve, officially inaugurating this year's so-called "Pelicans Restaurant."

The initiative is aimed at allowing the migrating water birds to feast on their meals without harming the livelihood of fish farmers.

It is a unique arrangement, one reached by the Agriculture Ministry and the Nature and Parks Authority in an effort to minimize the damage pelicans cause to fish pools in the Hula Valley, as well as the economic damage brought upon the hatcheries.

Every autumn some 35,000 pelicans make their way to Israel, the vast majority of them stopping in the Hula Valley for critical nourishment needed to continue their journey. Fish farmers are less than excited by the sight of these visitors, and have been known to open fire on birds entering their ponds.

Agriculture Ministry officials said they are well aware of the problem. "During the brief period of their visits, the pelicans cause tremendous damage to fish farmers - about 2 million shekels worth," said a ministry spokesperson. "As a result the birds are causing a drop in fresh fish distribution for holiday meals, and a rise in prices."

'Those who don't eat don't fly'

One ornithologist said, "The pelicans did this before we came here. In places along the coast where today there are fish ponds there were once swamps, and in the Galilee there was Lake Hula."

"Research conducted in Israel clearly concluded that pelicans must eat here in order to continue migrating," he continued. "Those who don't eat don't fly."

The new agreement reached yesterday has the Agriculture Ministry and the Nature and Parks Authority each providing NIS 300,000 in funding for the 15 tons of fish for the pelicans.

An official at the authority said yesterday, "Feeding the pelicans provides them with an alternative to the fish ponds, but we must remember that the ponds will always be more attractive, and fish farmers must continue to prevent them from entering. Still, no one is disputing that they must eat."