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GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Crashing on the waves of the Mediterranean at sunset, Palestinian fisherman Mohammed Al-Nahal leads a convoy of rickety boats for another risky night under the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Forced to stay close to shore due to Israeli restrictions on powerful engines, the men complain of having to search for an outlet in overfished shallow water with declining stocks.
“If we catch 200 kilograms (450 pounds) of sardines, that would be great,” says Nahal. “But we can also come back empty-handed. “
The high fuel prices in the enclave mean that the operating costs of the fishery are crippling, forcing them to stay closer to the coast.
“The further we go, the more we pay for fuel without a guaranteed catch,” said Nahal, leading a line of five boats, the air charged with the stench of diesel and sardines.
For Gaza, fenced off by Israel and Egypt, and where Islamists Hamas took power in 2007, the open sea seems to offer the promise of freedom – but it is misleading.
The Israeli navy has full control of the waters off the 40-kilometer (25-mile) long coast of Gaza, and regularly restricts or expands the size of the fishing area in response to security conditions.
After months of relative calm following an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in May, the authorized fishing zone was extended last month to 15 nautical miles, its maximum under the blockade, including waters deep with richer fish stocks.
But Nahal’s crew don’t venture that far. Six miles is their outer limit, good for sardines, but too close to shore for higher value fish like tuna.
“We fishermen don’t have the proper motors to reach a distance of 15 miles,” says Nahal. “Currently, we are not allowed to enter Gaza with these modern engines. “
Some Palestinian fishermen are also worried about going too far out to sea. In the past, Israeli gunboats have opened fire and damaged nets to enforce access restrictions.
Making a living takes ingenuity, and Nahal reused a Volvo car engine to power the boat and operate the powerful lights – which fishermen light up in the night waters to attract sardines.
Due to the import restrictions imposed by the blockade, Israel is also limiting access to other key equipment such as sonar to find schools of fish.
Israel restricts such articles by citing their “dual use,” saying they could either aid Hamas’ weapons production or the powerful engines could be used by smugglers.
He says the blockade is necessary to protect Israeli civilians who have been targeted by thousands of rockets fired by militants into the enclave since the Hamas takeover.
But Yussef, 22, who watches Nahal’s boat, complains that with all of Gaza’s fishermen forced to cluster in the same small area, they struggle to fish enough to make a profit.
“There aren’t enough fish,” he says. “I have made a living from fishing since I was 14 years old. Every day when the water is open, I go out. It’s the only thing I know how to do for a living.
For Gaza, home to some two million Palestinians – about half of whom are unemployed – seafood provides an essential source of protein.
But in addition to overfishing, the industry faces multiple challenges.
They include poorly treated sewage pumped into the sea from the overcrowded city, “affecting the entire marine environment and public health,” according to a 2020 World Bank report.
“A lot of the fish that people depend on are already overexploited,” adds the World Bank.
This time, for Nahal, the success is moderate.
After hours of shining bright lights in the waters, boats circle the area and cast their nets.
“Here are the fish, catch them, because it is my fish that I love”, the men sing as the catch is raised.
Exhausted and back in port, fishermen sell the catch in the bustling harbor, where auctioneers shout prices to waiting wholesalers.
For Nahal, the half-ton sells in 90 seconds for 3,000 Israeli shekels ($ 935).
That’s more than he’d hoped for, but it’s hardly a profitable night after deducting his fees and crew wages.


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