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.

People fish in the polluted Tigris River, next to a sewage pipe, in central Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 31, 2008. The recent decline in violence in Baghdad has raised hopes that attention can shift to repairs on critical public services that have been crippled by war and neglect. Perhaps the most complex: trying to control what flows into waterways and what comes out of Baghdad taps. (AP Photo/Selcan Hacaoglu)
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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."