Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Young men fish next to a sewage pipe in the polluted Tigris River in central Baghdad.
Young men fish next to a sewage pipe in the polluted Tigris River in central Baghdad.
SELCAN HACAOGLU STF
Young men fish next to a sewage pipe in the polluted Tigris River in central Baghdad.

Shock tactics cripple a mighty river

Criminals are using electricity to kill their catch on the Tigris, even during spawning season when fish eggs are among the victims.

AZIZIYAH, IRAQ // On the Tigris, south of Baghdad, it is spawning season, precisely the wrong time to be fishing. Each fish pulled from the water today means there will be fewer eggs laid and fewer eggs hatched. If the fish stocks are to survive, the river must be left alone for two months every year and allowed to regenerate. Qais Fleyeh Attar has spent his life working the water near Aziziyah, 60km from the Iraqi capital, and understands and respects this natural rhythm, packing away his nets in February and not fishing again until April.

Others, motivated by short-term profits, do not have the same attitude. In fact, they do not even fish with nets, instead using electricity to send shock waves through the water and kill the fish. In doing so, they are rapidly killing the river. "What happens is this," Mr Attar said. "People who are not real fishermen decide that it's easy money to catch and sell fish and they decide there's a more modern, better way to do it than using a net, which takes a lot of time and effort.

"So they go and get a machine rigged up that uses a lorry battery or two, and they go and shock the water. It seems like a good idea because the dead fish just float to the surface and you can collect them and go to the market." The electric-shock devices pass a strong current through the river, killing all the fish in a 10-metre radius. There is no discrimination according to size, and the electricity does not leave fish eggs intact.

"It's bad enough doing this at any time," Mr Attar said. "Doing it in spawning season is stupid. You kill all the adult fish, all the mothers, all of the children and all of the eggs. You are leaving nothing for the future." The effects of such unsustainable practices are already being felt by the fishermen who work with traditional methods on this small, downriver section of the 1,900km waterway.

"We used to be able to land dozens of fish a day not so many years ago," said Karim Kazim Jani, another man who has spent his life fishing from the Tigris. "When you know your business properly you keep the large fish, and leave the small ones in the river to grow - then you can take them next year. "Now we have days when there are no fish, when you don't catch a single fish. You feel lucky if you catch a couple of small ones. We'll get to the point where there will be nothing left at all. I'm not sure how far we are from that at the moment, but it feels quite close."

Tigris fishermen are not wealthy, but used to be able to make a reasonable living from the water and, during spawning season, by taking work as labourers or tractor drivers on local farms. As the fish supply dries up, it has become increasingly difficult for them to make ends meet. Markets are flooded with fish caught using electricity, which in the short term undermines prices. Freshwater fish from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are an extremely popular food in Iraq. One of the country's signature dishes, masgoof, is a fish split in half and roasted over a charcoal fire. It is a meal commonly given to honoured guests although, for a time during the civil war of 2005 to 2007, fish was distinctly unpopular; so many corpses were being dumped in the rivers that some Islamic authorities banned its consumption out of concern that the fish had been feeding on human remains.

Although that horrific problem has been overcome, fishermen say more prosaic concerns are now crippling them. "We don't even really cover our basic costs a lot of the time," Mr Attar said. "Petrol for the boat is more expensive than it used to be and the price of fish isn't keeping up." The authorities in Wasit province are aware of the issue, but admit they have done little to stop it. Although security is generally good - Wasit is one of Iraq's safest provinces - the police and army said they lack the resources to chase after illegal fishermen. In a country where bombings, assassinations and kidnappings remain fairly commonplace, poachers are not high on the list of priorities.

"Fishing with electricity is against the law; it's forbidden by the community and it's forbidden by God," said Salam Iskander Zait, provincial director of the ministry of agriculture in Kut, the administrative capital of Wasit. "If we find anyone doing it they will go to prison. They are criminals interested only in money; they are destroying the river. "We've given instructions to the police to make patrols and to stop this happening, but the police don't have enough people to put on river patrols."

The ministry of agriculture has a fish farm project in Wasit, in an effort to meet demand without further reducing fish stocks. And according to Mr Zait, the dwindling fish population is far from being the main problem facing the Tigris. "There's not enough water; that's my major concern," he said. "The water levels have been falling consistently; this is the thing that worries me. It's not a problem I can solve. It's something the government will have to do at a national level, working with our neighbours; it's an international matter."

The Tigris, which has its source in the mountains of Turkey, passes through a series of major cities, including Mosul and Baghdad, before reaching the southern regions of Wasit, Maysan and Basra. It is heavily and controversially dammed upstream, placing a huge load on the river. There are also significant problems with pollution. Mr Attar, the fisherman, said he had little hope the matter would be resolved before it was too late. "We've been here all our lives and know when the river is dying," he said. "We see it every day. Once there were fish, we had otters and birds. Now it feels like everything is disappearing.

"It's just a matter of time now until the Tigris is dead altogether." psands@thenational.ae nlatif@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National