Something Smells Fishy at the Kishon - and It's Not the Catch

When Amram Assur heard rumors last week that there were crabs to be caught at Haifa Bay, he immediately headed out to sea to cast his nets. "I figured I'd try to catch something, because you can forget about catching fish."

Some 200 fishermen, including 81-year-old Amram, are trying to edge out a living in the fishing docks on the mouth of the Kishon Stream, north of Haifa. He has been there longer than any of them, selling the catch to fish vendors, but now he is losing hope. "The sea has died, and we have been left without any livelihood," says Amram, who started fishing at age 11 in Casablanca, Morocco.

"The factories dumped their waste in the river and killed off our part of the sea. They made billions and left us unemployed. There's no one to complain to, because they're stronger than the government," Amram concludes his predicament, reddening with anger.

According to Matzliach Mizrahi, who heads the Kishon Fishermen's Association, the chemical plants around the Haifa Bay area are allowed to dump waste in the Kishon according to quotas set by the Environmental Protection Ministry. He says the bay has seen a clear and gradual decrease in the number of fish since the 1980s.

During Ottoman times, the bay was known as a fish nursery, Mizrahi says. Fish would flock to its protected waters to spawn amid the rocks. "Where have the fish gone? We used to fish them by the tons with fishing rods. We used to fish with rods until 1985. Now there's nothing left. Some species have completely disappeared from the bay."

Among the species that can no longer be found in the bay, Mizrahi lists sardines, baby sardines, sea bream and grouper, referred to as "the king of all fish," which moved to deeper waters to escape pollution. "They're all gone now. The plants and the waste they dump in the sea via the Kishon Stream are killing off all the fish," Mizrahi complains.

Six years ago, in 2001, the Fishermen's Association filed a civil class action suit against seven chemical plants situated along the Kishon's banks. In what came to be known as the "fishermen's suit," the plaintiffs argued that the chemical waste reduced the fish population and destroyed fishing gear.

Yet it appears that this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Since then, the fishermen say, nine of their colleagues have died of cancer. An expert epidemiologist from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, determined that the rate of cancer among the fishermen's population was 48 to 59 percent higher than among the rest of the population.

Despite these data, the fishermen do not expect the court to rule in their favor. In recent years, it was discovered that veterans of the Shayetet 13 naval commando had a high rate of cancer cases, possibly due to training in the polluted Kishon. However, a commission for investigating the matter didn't find statistical evidence that diving in the Kishon caused the cancer.

"The Shayetet, who are the cream of the crop, failed to obtain justice from them. How can we petty fishermen ever hope to succeed," another fisherman, Abu-Ali, asks. "Many of us left. Some have died. The ones who are left are nothing more than a tourist attraction," Mizrahi adds.

The fishermen also criticize the Agriculture Ministry, accusing its former ministers of failing to address their grievances. The ministry's fishing director, Haim Anjoulie, told Haaretz that the fishermen were instrumental in creating their unfortunate circumstances.

"The nets used by the fishermen are too fine. They catch small fish that die, instead of allowing them to grow by using nets with larger holes." Mizrahi admits this is part of the problem, adding that the Ministry should ban fishing in the bay for at least 12 months. "During that time, they should compensate us and provide us with income. The money for our salaries should come from the chemicals plants," he proposes.