Around 10,000 of the estimated million people employed 
in Egypt’s fishing sector are based in ‘Izbat al-Burg, situated at the northernmost tip of the Nile’s Damietta Branch and bordered on the east by the vast Lake Manzala. As recently as nine years ago, Lake Manzala was a major fishing area and a collective asset for this community. Small-scale fishers used simple, cheap fishing boats and equipment, faring well alongside larger operators working in both lake and sea fishing. But at the turn of the century, the lake is no longer regarded as rizq (a source of livelihood). Increasingly, local fishers have been prevented from fishing in Manzala by state-licensed private enclosures that have virtually sealed off access to the lake’s northwestern shorelines. Armed employees of the fish farm owners — known locally as the “Manzala Mafia” — commonly guard the enclosures. Meanwhile, industrial, agricultural and municipal wastes, including over 1.5 million cubic meters per day of Cairo sewage, drain into the lake, negatively affecting the health of fish stocks.

The undermining of small-scale fishers’ livelihoods in ‘Izbat al-Burg is emblematic of the complex interplay between state policies and aquatic resources already under stress along the Nile Delta littoral. Through privatization of access to common property resources, rising costs, removal of subsidies and inappropriately regulated fishing and enforcement, state policies are forcing small fishers out of their way of life even while overall fish production is rising. Policy concern with more efficient management is effectively concentrating access to aquatic resource wealth into fewer and fewer hands. This process increases hardship for small-scale fishers and intensifies the unequal struggles for the very environmental assets the state claims to be protecting. Says Husni, a 45 year-old father of six children who has fished the lake for 32 years: “In 1993, Manzala was a source of income for all fishermen of ‘Izbat al-Burg. Now the farms have destroyed everything.”

Policy Without People

Egyptian environmental policy discussion focuses almost exclusively on the relationship between population pressure, scarce water resources and limited cultivable land, echoing the neo-Malthusian sense of crisis in much development discourse on Egypt. This simplistic focus fails to address unequal access to environmental entitlements and fails to include people in policy formulation. Characterizations of environmental crisis centered around resource shortage also provide the rationale for big development projects like the Toshka megaproject in the southwestern desert, which the government hopes will relieve the population pressure in the Nile Valley. Persistent neo-Malthusian beliefs — blaming the poor for lifestyles that undermine the environment and suggesting that fewer people would ipso facto mean more efficient resource use — generate a crisis management mentality that distracts attention from actual processes of impoverishment of people and their environments, and the differential impacts of environmental change on different social groups.

Accurate understanding of environmental pressures in Egypt requires moving away from the Malthusian perspectives of planners and examining actual patterns of livelihood in fishing communities. In addition to pollution, the key issues of environmental sustainability addressed here are the distribution of available resources, government decisions about resource allocation and the increasing privatization of historically collective assets.

Egypt’s Pollutant “Sinks”

The four northern lakes of Manzala, Burullos, Edku and Mariut provide a rich and vital habitat for estuarine and marine fish and their regeneration, and have always been major areas of fish production in Egypt. The Four Sisters, as they are called locally, contributed 34 percent of national production in 1976, and reportedly still provided 28 percent of the total harvest in 1998, in spite of severe environmental pressures. All have been affected by pollution, declining fish quality and significant reduction in size due to land reclamation.

Egypt relies almost exclusively on the Nile as a water source and its intricate water conveyance system eventually delivers the vast bulk of outflows from across Egypt to the northern lakes and coastline. As a result, the 
Mediterranean Delta coastline and the four lakes act as pollutant “sinks,” receiving a large 
proportion of persistent 
pollutants generated throughout the Nile Valley and flowing through the Delta’s terminal drainage network. Water 
pollution from local and upstream wastes has steadily increased as a result of the intensified multi-purpose use of Nile waters, and the once annual Nile flood no longer flushes the entire system. This has meant fewer fish, fewer kinds of fish and lower fish quality.

Of the Four Sisters, Mariut and Manzala are by far the most polluted. Lake Mariut receives a large proportion of Alexandria’s industrial and sewage effluent and is undergoing an extreme state of anaerobic decomposition. The largest and most productive lake, Manzala, reportedly still provides about 50 percent of total Delta lake production. Yet the lake receives flows from five major terminal drains carrying pollutants from agricultural, industrial and municipal discharges, including the Cairo sewage mentioned above. Water quality is further declining because the Salam Canal project is diverting Nile water (mixed with drainage water originally flowing to Manzala) for land reclamation in Sinai. The water diversion reduces the dilution of pollutants in the lake. A recent UN Development Program and Ministry of Environment report on the lake’s environmental health noted increased pollution, damage to fish stocks and fishers’ livelihoods, tourism and the habitats of migratory birds.

According to surveys of fish in the 1980s, over 60 percent of fish sampled in the four Delta lakes contained DDT and benzene chloride. Numerous other investigations in the four lakes have shown high levels of heavy metals, pesticides and PCBs in fish. Fishers themselves are usually the highest consumers of fish; they are the most exposed to the health hazards posed by fish contaminated by heavy metals, pesticides and sewage. Large numbers of Manzala fishers and their families have worm infestations and incidences of salmonella, shigella and viral hepatitis are also high. Fishers know of the dangers, says Husni: “The water in the lake is sluggish and the smell is bad…like something dead.”

Physical changes in the landscape have also affected fish yields and species composition along the Nile Delta littoral. Land reclamation has decreased overall lake surface area, and fish yields have also been reduced by the closure of sea-lake inlets through siltation. The reduction of the river’s outflow, which once deflected offshore currents, together with a lessened silt load reaching the sea, has meant that sea currents now produce net erosion along the delta’s coastline, altering coastal configuration and wetland channels to the sea. These processes have affected water circulation within the lakes and fish habitats, and obstructed vital migratory routes both within the lakes and between the lakes and the Mediterranean Sea. As early as 1977, prior to the dramatic increase in private fish farming enclosures, lake surface areas lost to land reclamation were already 60 percent in Mariut, 29 percent in Edku and 11 percent in Manzala. By 1988, losses had risen to 30 percent in Manzala and 62 percent in Edku. Now, al-Ahram reports that Manzala’s surface area is a mere one third of its original expanse of 327,000 feddans.

Fishermen from Lake Mariut demonstrated along the Cairo-Alexandria highway bordering the lake several times during the early 1980s to protest the degradation of the “commons” due to pollution and landscape change. The demonstrations were quickly quashed. In the mid-1990s, the Lake Mariut Fishers’ Federation began a long, difficult and thus far unpublicized lawsuit seeking compensation for loss of livelihood. In Lake Manzala, fishers have met numerous times with various authorities to voice their complaints about pollution and the authorities’ neglect of the closed sea-lake inlets. The meetings followed a predictable pattern: the government promised remedial action, and the problems remain unsolved.

“Free Market” Fish Farming

Adopting USAID recommendations, over the last 20 years the Egyptian government has promoted privately run intensive fish farming along the Delta Lake shorelines — imposing exclusive access upon areas that were originally public domain and especially hurting small-scale subsistence and artisanal fishers. Private fish farms have proliferated so rapidly that they reportedly contributed 76 percent of total aquacultural production in 1998. These farms raise rather than breed fish: farm operators simply rear the young fish known as fish fries and fingerlings to market size, harvest them and restock the farms for each cycle. In contrast, fish breeding farms, which are presently rare in Egypt, breed fish and raise the fry.

A lucrative market for fish fries now exists. Entrepreneurs who have purchased exclusive rights of access to plots along lake shorelines buy the young fish from the General Authority for Fishery Resources Development (GAFRD) and transport them to their farms. A huge percentage of fries — as much as 40 to 50 percent — die during handling and transport to the farms. The fish fry “industry” arising in response to the dramatic increase in demand is a drastic example of unsustainable fish resource “mining.”

The GAFRD has developed hatcheries to respond to the growing demand for fish fries and fingerlings to stock the fish farms, but the establishment and management of hatcheries is complex and difficult. Capital costs are relatively high and they require special inputs like imported hormones. In practice, the GAFRD, at least in Damietta, relies strongly on fish fry collection centers (referred to locally as the mugamma‘ al-wilda) rather than hatcheries to supply young fish to the private farms. The collection centers draw their supply from open waters, and therefore directly promote the “mining” of fish fries. These practices effectively deplete the lakes’ natural fish stocks.

Despite evidence that current techniques encourage unsustainable depletion of Egypt’s fish resources, USAID continues to push for privatization. The government is unlikely to change a policy that has “efficiently” increased aquaculture’s annual fish harvest from 300 tons in 1972-73 to as much as 136,500 tons in 1998—a figure exceeding 25 percent of Egypt’s domestic fish harvest.

The Manzala Mafia

In line with national policy, the governorate of Damietta, where ‘Izbat al-Burg is located, began extending five-year, renewable leases on areas along the northwestern shorelines of Lake Manzala to private fish farmers for the establishment of enclosures in the mid-1980s. The farmers pay an annual rental fee in addition to selling their first 100 kilograms of fish per feddan at government-imposed prices. By the 1990s, over 5,000 feddans in Damietta was leased for fish culture. Small-scale fishers operating from sailboats or rowboats, or fishing from the shore with a simple hook and line, used to provide cheap fish for poorer sectors of ‘Izbat al-Burg. But the new enclosures have denied small-scale fishers access to large areas of the lake.
According to respondents in ‘Izbat al-Burg and media accounts, a spoils system dictates the allocation of licenses for both fishing fries and for fish farms from Manzala to Edku. Veteran fisher Husni explains, “Now there are hundreds of feddans of farms that belong to the elite. For every farm, there are armed guards and vicious dogs.” The Manzala Mafia — comprising government officials, bureaucrats and local elites — sometimes expands the area of enclosures beyond their allocated sizes, and their armed guards have been known to ward off fishers further inlake from the enclosures’ perimeters.

Ironically, Article 48 of the Fisheries Law 124 promulgated in 1983 specifically prohibits the establishment of fish farms within lake waters. A decree of the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation in 1997 ordered all encroachments onto lake surface areas removed. But the authorities have not implemented either of these provisions, at least on Lake Manzala and Lake Edku further west. The Agriculture Ministry’s Fisheries Committee and the Proposals and Complaints Committee of the People’s Assembly complained recently that fish farmers’ encroachments, along with pollution, constitute the “assassination of Lake Manzala.” Meanwhile, the livelihoods of small fishers hang in the balance.

Those Who Sweat

The hunting of fish in open waters involves the catching, processing, preserving and sale of fish catches, and the manufacture, repair and maintenance of boats and fishing gear like nets. Fishing communities have a complex set of customary rights and social conventions to regulate their fishing and allow sufficient time for fish to breed and grow before harvesting, but these processes have all been altered by policies and practices beyond their control.

As in all other Delta regions, fishers in ‘Izbat al-Burg are bound by a web of government fishery regulations designed to conserve aquatic resources, but are continually exasperated by the open flouting of the regulations by powerful interests. The government further confounded fishers by exempting the capture of young fish fries from a range of prohibitions on fishing. Those with licenses to fish fries and fingerlings can do so all year long, and use of prohibited fine-mesh trammel nets and purse seine (shansholla) fishing continues during the night.
Reduced access to the lake is pushing local owners of simple boats and rafts, and rod-and-line fishers, out of their original livelihoods for good. They try to obtain licenses to catch fish fry or work as crew members on others’ boats. Boat owners still fishing from ‘Izbat al-Burg fish at sea in large motorized wooden or high-tech ferro-cement boats. Social differentiation between motorized boat owners and owners of non-motorized vessels has increased apace. 
Seventy-eight year-old Sa‘id, a fisher since he was 7, puts it this way: “Now he who suffers suffers a lot, and he who is well-off is extremely well-off. There is no place to put a foot in Manzala anymore.”

Boat owners, fish laborers and their families complain about pollution, declining catches, reduced access to fishing areas, and increased costs of fishing inputs and of fish. The increase in the price of fish is not passed on to fish workers but appropriated by fish merchants. Fishers cope with increases in loan interest rates and the costs of boats and a range of fishing inputs. The latter include costs of supplies for fishing trips, spare parts, maintenance and repair works. In ‘Izbat al-Burg, the cost of motorized wooden boats increased from between LE 70,000 to LE 100,000 in the late 1980s and more than LE 400,000 (about $120,000) today. The price of fuel and maintenance has also risen. Essential cotton yarn for net manufacture and repair costs 300 percent more than it did eight years ago. These increased costs encourage owners to engage in boat shareholding, often between as many as eight partners.

The people hardest hit by the transformation of fishing in Egypt are the ‘arraqa — literally “those who sweat” — who work for boat owners. On a typical boat of 152 horsepower, the supply of diesel, grease, ice and food for a fishing trip at sea normally costs LE 2,000-3,000, while the total revenue from a good catch on such a trip is about LE 4,000 (about $1,200). As the owners are chronically short on cash, they find it difficult to raise the costs of the trip. If they do make the trip, the crew of six or more splits the profit after the owner’s share. Each crewman’s share amounts to LE 
100-150 (roughly $30-$50), and often less.

In these dire circumstances, some small fishers resort to indiscriminate fishing practices that can lead to overharvesting, including the use of illegal fine mesh nets and the catching of fish fry, fishing during spawning/breeding seasons, and the use of dynamite or poisons. But as demonstrated above, the increased demand for fish fry, at least, is stimulated by fishery policy rather than fishers’ recklessness. As one fisher encapsulated his activities: “This is destroying our tomorrow, but my family has to eat today.”

When the price of fuel was raised sharply to LE 80 per barrel in July 1983, fishers from ‘Izbat al-Burg and neighboring areas sailed together up the Nile to demonstrate in front of the Damietta governorate headquarters. More recently, the 1996 prohibition on fishing during the prime summer months prompted similar demonstrations. But in numerous other coastal areas where fishers live in informal settlements, protest is avoided for fear of eviction. As more and more shoreline is privatized for fish farming enclosures or tourist and other coastal development, officials call more frequently for evictions, and sometimes issue the warrants.

A major obstacle to organized actions among small-scale fishers in Egypt is that all existing fisher cooperatives must belong to the Federation of Fisher Cooperatives, run under the auspices of the GAFRD. Membership in almost all of these cooperatives is restricted to boat owners, the most 
influential of whom are “elected” to administer the cooperatives. Attempts continue to register alternative cooperative societies to better represent the demands of small-scale fishers, both boat owners and ‘arraqa, for more favorable terms of work. Meanwhile, some fishing communities have registered “community development associations” with the Ministry of Social Affairs to provide basic social services: insurance against work-related injuries and death at sea, general health insurance and monthly retirement pensions. Given the crisis in fishers’ livelihoods, more and stronger alternative grassroots associations are likely.

Loss of the Commons

Despite grassroots efforts, small fishers on Egypt’s northern coastline are suffering from mounting debt and reduced employment opportunities. To cope with the changes, women are intensifying and diversifying their productive activities — manufacturing of nets for sale, working long hours in paid fish processing and petty trading of fish. Many households are counting the costs of increasing household debt: longer working hours for those who can get work, declining use of expensive medical services and hard choices about which children — if any — will receive or continue education. The outcome of these “choices” is likely to be increased social differentiation between those who can remain in the fishing industry and those who lead a marginal existence. Simply feeding a family has become a major drain on fishing families’ income. Bahiyya, whose husband works as a partner on a wooden boat, says living standards in Manzala have declined “because it has become a private farm. The whole town is in a bad condition. We only eat fish twice a week instead of every day.”

In Egypt, “efficient” management of fish resources has meant privatization of the commons, concentrating access to fish resources in fewer and fewer hands. The GAFRD now aims to increase annual per capita consumption of fish by intensifying fish farming, improving fish management and developing cooperation with neighboring countries. But unless the needs and strategies of small fishers in places like ‘Izbat al-Burg are included in these plans, Egypt’s aquatic resource management policy will continue to marginalize the fishing communities around which fish production should be centered. From the perspective of policymakers, small-scale fishers are apparently almost invisible. For small fishers, “environmental action” entails standing up to be acknowledged and to defend their lives and livelihoods.

How to cite this article:

Amal Sabri, Ray Bush "Mining for Fish," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

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