Crete is an island with a coastline exceeding 1000 Kilometers and fishing has alway been a traditional occupation for the Cretan people. Today however, the industry and local marine life are quite different. There are still plenty of fishermen, both professional and amateur, in Crete but the fish stocks, and catches, are getting increasingly lower each year. Two of the biggest contributors to the problem of rapidly declining fish and marine life populations in the Mediterranean are, 1. Overfishing, a common problem in many countries, and the main reason for the scarcity of fish around the world, and 2. Environmental damage to the local marine ecosystems, for example the now outlawed fishing with dynamite method which has caused extensive damage to the marine ecosystem all around Crete. Many Cretans used to go fishing quite regularly but consistent poor catches have dampened their enthusiasm for the hobby and now many fishing rods lay forgotten in dusty storage rooms and basements. There is little enjoyment in driving for one or two hours to reach the “perfect” fishing spot, then spending several hours there only to return home with a few tiny fish. Of course there are still fish to be found in Crete’s waters and they are all quite tasty, it just may take more patience and expertise to catch them then it once did.
To get a better understanding of the fishing industry in Crete and the changes in the local sea life around the island I sought out the help of some of the finest fishermen the island has to offer, three men who have been fishing and exploring the mediterranean waters, specifically around Crete, for almost 30-60 years. My first appointment was with an Egyptian man who had been fishing in and around crete for over 40 years. He docked in the port of Gouves, close to the hotel owned by Geeky Greekys family, so on one windy afternoon me and Geeky Greeky headed over to the small port to seek out this mystery fishing expert. We had no way of contacting him and no way of actually knowing that he would, in fact, be there. All we had to go on was his name, Nasser, and instructions to locate a “tan buff dude” somewhere close to the port who would be able to point us in the right direction. We reached the port to find three weathered looking fellows standing next to the back of a freshly washed pick up just inside the port’s main gate. We approached timidly, Geeky Greeky (the only Greek speaker between the two of us) leading the way. We were lucky, the first man we approached happened to be our “tan buff” guide. Hopeful after tracking down the first piece of the puzzle, we asked the man if he knew the whereabouts of Nasser only to be told that he had just left to go out and set his nets for the evening. He would either be back in a couple hours or early the next morning. Thanking the man, Geeky Greeky and I headed back on our way with plans to return later that evening. Although more adventurous, I truly enjoyed these kinds of interviews where I have to track down some mystery person that may or may not even be able to speak to me at the time. Yes, it is slightly more stressful and sometimes ends up being a little pointless, but for the most part I find that these sought out encounters lead to incredibly intriguing conversations that would not have been able to happen without throwing caution to the winds. Happily this encounter turned out to be just that.
Geeky Greeky and I returned later that evening to find the “tan buff dude” sitting with a small group of other fishermen on the far side of the port around a small plastic coffee table. From their spot on the edge of the concrete dockyard you had a perfect, uninterrupted view of the ocean’s horizon and the setting sun. Although the tiniest bit hazy, you could see the outline of the far coast line of the next inlet and the large main port of Heraklion with its pony like cranes. The wind was blowing in strong and cold from the open sea and the six or so men that sat around the small plastic table were all bundled up with thick wool sweaters and nursing small plastic cups filled with Raki. They smiled, welcomingly, at our approach and immediately stood up and began making room for us, bringing out two more white plastic lawn chairs and setting them up beside theirs. Through all the sudden commotion and introductions I noticed one man, who looked slightly browner than the rest, with kind eyes staring in our directions. Although quisical and not instantly trusting of us new comers he stuck out his hand to shake my own, eyes never leaving mine, then got up out of his seat and gave it to me while taking one of the new ones that were being brought out. His huge weathered hands looked calloused and rough, the true hands of a skilled and aged fishermen. As I had thought, this man was Nasser, and although curious and attentive to my questions he directed most of them to the man sitting beside him, Manolis, who happened to be the president of the fisherman’s union in Heraklion city.
Manolis had quite a lot to say about the matter of fishing in Crete and the depletion of sea life throughout the Mediterranean. Manolis had started fishing at the age of 10 and in his 60 or so years of fishing in and around Crete he had seen a drastic change in the fish populations as well as the health of the local marine life all around the Mediterranean. “One of the biggest problems fishermen in the Mediterranean are facing now is the new arrival of the Killer Fish!” He said the name as if it were out of an old Stephen King novel and glanced around as if this scaley beast might be living on land and lurking around the corner. Although it may sound dramatized this incredibly invasive and dominant species has caused a large amount of carnage to the salty ecosystem of the Mediterranean sea. The killer fish, more officially known as the Silver Cheeked Toadfish, enters the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and is incredibly toxic. In fact it holds a toxin in its liver, ovaries, and in a lesser effect its skin, thats 1,250 times more toxic than cyanide. 1,250 TIMES!!! At first I didn’t believe it but the fact checked out according to the U.K Times Newspaper. The biggest problem with this species, however, is not its toxicity level or the effect it could have on humans, no, the biggest issue with this killer fish is that it has NO PREDATORS! So other than fishermen occasionally pulling one out by accident, there is nothing in the Mediterranean sea that can kill this deadly nuisance. The other issue? It eats absolutely everything, and has had a great effect on the populations of fish that local fishermen target to catch in order to sell to local markets and make a living. Some countries around the Mediterranean have enacted laws that create incentives for local fishermen to catch these invasive fish and kill them. For example in Cyprus fishermen are given around 2 euros to catch and dispose of these fish in order to reduce the population in the Mediterranean sea. Greece, however, has no such law, something that Manolis made sure to point out.
When asking Manolis about the depleting fish population in the mediterranean sea and what its cause was the man almost scoffed. A stout, bearded fellow with warm brown eyes, he had a great passion for the health of the local marine life and quite a lot to say about the causes and effects that have impacted it in the last twenty to thirty years. “Many of the fish are gone because we are not letting them breed.” He stated seriously, leaning in slightly to ensure that he had our full attention. “Right now (early april until the end of may) is the time when all the pregnant fish come back to their old breeding grounds to lay eggs. There was a time where no fishermen fished during this time because they knew that the fish needed the time to spawn and grow up. But you see our boats…” He gestured to the end of the port where a cute little row of traditional looking wooden fishing boats sat bobbing in the water, “they should not be in the water, but they all are because the government allows fishing during this period.” During april and may, and for some species into june, mother fish with anywhere from thousands to millions of eggs in their bellies travel to breeding grounds to give birth and carry on future generations. However, many of these mothers never get the chance because they are captured in fishing nets or on the ends of a fisherman’s hooks far before they can give birth. This is one of the largest contributors to the decreasing fish population problem all around the world, not only in the Mediterranean, so of course were seeing a lower population of fish in our planets waters, were not even giving them enough time to reproduce before we catch them, freeze them, and ship them off to every corner of the world. “What many people forget”, Manoli said, sinking back into his chair with a long, slow sigh, “is that the Mediterranean is not an ocean. Its a sea. It’s much smaller and more enclosed than most other saltwater ecosystems in this world, so we must work extra hard to protect it because it can be taken advantage of much easier and damaged much more quickly.” Manolis believes that one solution to this problem would be to give local fishermen an incentive to not fish during this period. For, as Manolis said, “Fishermen won’t do this on their own when they have families to feed and an industrial, global fishing industry to contend with.” Manolis idea is to convince the Greek Government to create a subsidy for fishermen that choose to take their boats out of the water during this period. If you choose to do this you will get some sum of money to support you and your family for these two months before it is appropriate for you to put your boat back in the water and start fishing again.
Fishing during the spawning season was not the only issue Manolis brought up however. He explained that one of the biggest issues with the fishing industry in greece and throughout most of the mediterranean is that the EU as a whole makes blanket fishing and coastal laws and regulations for every European country even though in certain countries those laws may or may not make sense or actually be helpful due to each european country and its local marine ecosystem being different. The biggest issue for Manolis, however, wasn’t even that the EU was creating blanket laws that applied to every European country, his biggest concern is that the laws that the EU do create simply make no sense and are obviously made by people who know nothing about fishing or the marine life found in the Mediterranean sea. “They need to talk to the fishermen and the sailors. They have to ask the people that actually spend every day in and out of the water and who interact with the local fish what laws should be made and what problems must be fixed, but they don’t.” One example of one such law is the regulation on the size of nets that fishermen and trawlers are allowed to use. The EU regulation states that you cannot use any net with holes smaller than 10cm, when in actuality fishermen almost never use a net smaller than 20cm, more commonly 24cm, because otherwise you’ll end up catching infants or species of fish that you can’t use (eat or sell in market) and end up needlessly killing and wasting a huge number of fish that could have grown up and been endible or somehow supported the food chain in another way. “10cm is what you use to keep mosquitos out of your home!” Manolis said gesturing wildly with frustration, “I would love to know what magnificent brain came up with this idea! Italian, Spanish, French?! How can such ridiculousness actually become a law! Do they not know what will happen to our sea if you allow the use of such a small net?!” Such rules, and a lack of communication between legislation makers and the people who will later have to adhere to such laws has lead to a great amount of anger and frustration between government officials and local people.
“It’s frustrating because the government is trying to help”, Manolis went on, “just in the wrong way and with bad results.” He explained how earlier that month he had been called into the local registration office and was told to fill out a piece of paper stating the amount of fish he had caught and what species… for last January (2018). “They wanted me to write down the exact kilos and the exact number for every species that I had caught. I have no problem doing this for today, I have no problem doing this for yesterday, but HOW am I supposed to remember these number from a whole year ago?? But it’s mandatory. I have to put something on this piece of paper, so I lie. There is no way for me to tell the truth.” Every licensed fishermen in Crete was given the same piece of paper and faced the same situation. The worst part, these numbers are being used for research and data collection about local fish populations and will be used to create new laws regarding fishing in the mediterranean, and there all going to be based on B.S.
The next day we carried on this heavy subject with another expert fishermen of Crete, Zacharias Damianakis, who carried on Manolis point of how problematic this inaccurate information is by describing a law around Tuna fishing that was recently created to try and save the endangered species. Due to the false information that fishermen had submitted in previous years, yes this is not the first time this slip of paper has been required from local fishing communities, the fishing of Bluefin Tuna has been made illegal for any ship or fishermen sailing under the Greek flag. This might sound like a good call but here’s the catch. It is illegal for Greek fishermen in and outside of Greek waters to fish for bluefin tuna, however it is perfectly fine and legal for any other fishermen sailing or registered under a different flag to fish for Bluefin Tuna in and outside of Greek waters. Such laws are not all that uncommon and lead to issues both within fishing communities and industries as well as problems between international fishermen and fishing communities. According to Zack, however, the environmental problems that the mediterranean is now facing are not only due to bad or faulty legislation. Zack believes the largest impact on marine life is caused by pollution an unsustainable fishing practices.
Due to Crete being an island whose economy mainly depends on the tourism industry, the island, on and off shore, must contend with a lot of byproduct from the tourism industry mainly in the form of waste. This includes one use and microplastics being left by tourists on beaches and streets as well as the mismanagement of sewage and waste disposal by large hotels. On top of the pollution created by the tourism industry, Cretes second largest industry is non-organic farming, which has a toxic byproduct of chemicals that come down from the farms as run off when it rains and meets up with rivers that lead to the ocean. The runoff from chemical farming, farming that uses herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, is full of chlorine, phosphates, (2,4-D), and methylene chloride to name just a few, all heavily toxic chemicals that cause great harm to corals and fish that live around river mouths and shorelines. These same rains also carry microplastics from nearby landfills, polluting the once pristine mediterranean sea even more. While the pollution from these large industries is incredibly detrimental to the local marine life, it’s nothing compared to the long lasting, heavy damage brought to the seas floor and deep sea ecosystems by trawling, a sadly popular and incredibly devastating fishing method for inhabitants of the Mediterranean sea. Trawling can cause irreversible damage to sensitive habitats like deep-sea coral reefs, gorgonian gardens, and sponge grounds. It rips up coral and sponge bed habitats that fish and shellfish depend on for breeding, spawning, and nurseries. This can significantly hamper the recovery of depleted fish stocks. Trawling is also wasteful. Scientists estimate that it generates as much as half of all discarded fish and marine life globally. Most unwanted catches are juveniles that die in nets and are tossed overboard. Undersized hake and red mullet, which live and feed near the bottom, can make up 60 percent of bycatch for Mediterranean trawlers. These fish will never have a chance to grow and reproduce, risking damage to the population. Industrial trawlers also cause habitat loss. Corals, sponges, and seagrasses are particularly vulnerable. Some Mediterranean seagrass beds, which act as nursery grounds for many fish species, have already disappeared.
Idyllic though it may seem, all is not well in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is the world’s most overfished sea, with the highest percentage of unsustainably harvested fish populations, according to a recent report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Increasing human activity makes Mediterranean marine ecosystems some of the most imperiled in the world, and for fishermen like Zack, Nasser, and Manolis who have been fishing in these waters for their entire lives, this is no small problem. “If we leave the sea alone and do not fish for two whole years… and I mean EVERYBODY does not fish, then maybe the marine life will slowly come back. But I do not believe it will ever be what it once was. You use to be able to go stand in the water up to your knees and see small orange reef fish and bright corals and sponges… now there’s nothing.” said Zack at the end of our conversation. This is a belief that has been echoed by many sea faring individuals around Crete. The belief that yes, we can improve and help build back a little of the mediterranean marine ecosystem, but it will never reach the grandeur that it once was. The waters around Crete, although seemingly pristine, are lacking in the bountiful life that they once held, and now we must treat this sea with the utmost respect and caution, for we may face losing all it has to offer forever.