Tuesday, 13 October 2020 11:45

Tunisia - Aquaculture booms as capture production stagnates

Oussama Kheriji, former Minister of Agriculture, Water Resources, and Fisheries, TunisiaWith almost 2 300 km of coastline, 40 fishing ports and a further two under construction, fishing occupies an important position at the socio-economic level in Tunisia. It is an activity deeply rooted in Tunisian culture and traditions, particularly among coastal populations. Fish and seafood make a major contribution to the protein food balance of a large segment of the population; the average Tunisian consumes 11 kg of seafood per year.

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 5 / 2020.

Oussama Kheriji, former Minister of Agriculture, Water Resources, and Fisheries addresses some of the issues facing the Tunisian fisheries and aquaculture sector.

Around 100 000 Tunisians live directly or indirectly from fishing and aquaculture. The fishing fleet is made up of 12 489 coastal vessels, 396 trawlers, 385 lamparos (vessels that fish with lights) and sardine vessels, 36 tuna vessels and 176 vessels fishing in inland waters. The coast is divided into three fishing zones, north, east, and south with more than half the trawlers concentrated in the port of Sfax and almost 50% of the coastal boats are located between Sfax and Medenine. Demand for the creation of new fishing units increases constantly although the degradation of resources in traditional fishing areas means that the biomass is stagnating and can only be irregularly exploited. The scarcity of wild-caught species combined with growing demand for fish and seafood has led to explosive growth in the aquaculture sector. Aquafarmed production increased from 3 400 tonnes in 2007 to 21 768 tonnes in 2018, accounting for about 16% of the total national output of fishery products. So far, 41 fish and seafood farming sites have been established that generate 2 000 direct and indirect jobs. Production is expected to reach 45 000 tonnes in 2030. However, questions are already being raised about this development, the most significant of which are related to the interaction of this activity with the environment and especially to its integration into a sustainable coastal development plan. In 2018, fishing and aquaculture represented a turnover of TSD1 015m (EUR312m) for a production of 133 972 tonnes.

Access to Tunisia’s fishing grounds is free and equal for the country’s fishers subject to compliance with the relevant legislation. What is the legal and institutional framework for the fishing and aquaculture sector in Tunisia?

In Tunisia, the fishing sector is governed by a set of laws and regulations dealing with the law of the sea, conservation of fishery resources, fisheries management, trade and safety of fishery products, as well as measures for monitoring, control, and trade. At the institutional level, governance of the fisheries sector is provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries and the bodies it oversees whose main mission is to execute, in coordination with the relevant ministries, state policy in the agricultural and fishing sector.

What are the measures taken to ensure the conservation, protection, and sustainability of fisheries resources? How has the promotion of exports been reconciled with these measures?

Tunisian fisheries regulations are considered among the best in the Mediterranean. These regulations are based on clear and complete legal texts which concern the delimitation of maritime areas under sovereignty or national jurisdiction as well technical, spatial, and temporal rules which determine fishing periods and zones, fishing methods and gear, protection of aquatic species, transhipment, landing, and sale of catches etc. The regulations also cover the management of fishing ports and the administration of fishing vessels and their crews. They allocate the rights of access to the resource and provide a legal framework for the registration and collection of data on fishing activities as well as the monitoring, control, and surveillance of the fleet. These regulatory measures directly contribute to the protection and conservation of Tunisian fisheries, so the state has made significant efforts to ensure compliance with these rules. Other measures to protect and conserve fisheries resources include the establishment of artificial reefs in sensitive areas to prevent illegal fishing, for example, in the coastal areas of the Gulf of Gabes. The rules also regulate the rejuvenation of the fleet. This is a priority for the Tunisian sector as it will improve safety conditions at sea and the well-being of seafarers, but it should be undertaken strictly commensurate with the available resource. The sustainable exploitation of our resources is guaranteed by the implementation of rigorous traceability mechanisms, especially for products intended for export to the European market. Tunisian exporters, supported by a favourable institutional framework, focus sharply on product quality and thereby ensure the reputation of Tunisian products.

For fishing techniques that are recognised as destructive, there can be no solution other than banning them. Their use should be severely punished. How is regulatory compliance controlled? When can we see the deployment of the satellite surveillance system? In case of violation of the regulations in force, what are the appropriate measures to take?

The national strategy to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, aligns with international and regional objectives and guidelines for sustainable fisheries development. Our action plan is designed in accordance with the provisions of the most relevant international instruments, namely, the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) agreement, the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), and finally, FAO’s international action plan to combat IUU fishing. The regulations governing this strategy have been outlined above and its implementation is based on strengthening monitoring, control and surveillance measures, and capacity building.

How does the administration support the fishing sector to ensure a fair standard of living among fishers? And how can the security of supplies be guaranteed and affordable prices in the distribution channels to consumers ensured?

In addition to support to cover some of the costs our support policy encourages private investment in the fishing sector, particularly in the use of selective gear and techniques to ensure the sustainability of fisheries. This strategy is embedded in the investment code and its implementing texts published in 2016. The domestic and international trade in fishery products is generally liberal. Several factors affect price trends such as growing demand, higher costs, and increasing cold storage capacity. Monitoring these developments forms part of the country’s efforts to control inflation.

The pollution generated by the chemical industries and the dumping of plastics is threatening the environment in the Mediterranean. What are the remedies?

Pollution in general and that generated by chemical industries and from plastic waste, in particular, is certainly threatening. The threat is at several levels, namely the deterioration of the marine environment’s quality, the degradation of biodiversity, and also the effects on human health. Several studies have dealt with the subject and hotspots have been identified along the Tunisian coast. Remedies exist but promptly implementing lasting solutions has collided with socioeconomic imperatives. However, to deal with these issues within a reasonable timeframe, several actions need to be implemented in a concerted manner and above all on a large scale. These include mapping the main sources of pollution (even though they are known) according to their contribution to marine pollution and their degree of dangerousness. A monitoring and alert network would be a useful tool in this effort. Furthermore, the spatial distribution of the various pollutants both in coastal and off shore areas needs to be ascertained. This information can be fed into models of transport and distribution of plastics to predict their future spread. In addition, the impact of pollution on marine organisms needs to be studied. Moreover, laws should be enacted that introduce the “polluter pays” principle to take into account both local and distant sources of pollution. Furthermore, taking radical measures, for example, banning plastic bags, should not be shirked. Finally, creating awareness of the issue by involving civil society must be accelerated. Given the expertise in the country and the ready availability of technology, these steps can be achieved in the short-term. However, absolute priority must be given to governance and to the harmonisation of the laws in force.

What are the fishing agreements concluded between Tunisia and third countries? Should we develop our deep-sea fishing capacity?

Tunisia, as a fishing country, integrated the international work governing fisheries in the Mediterranean by joining the GFCM in 1954 and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas ICCAT in 1997. At the bilateral level, three agreements have been concluded with countries in relation to maritime delimitations and fishing law. These are with Italy relating to the delimitation of the continental shelf between the two countries, with Libya concerning the continental shelf, and with Algeria relating to the delimitation of maritime borders. Currently, the management of the deep-sea fishery off the Tunisian coast in the Strait of Sicily is jointly managed in accordance with the provisions of the two above-mentioned organisations which rely on the limitation of fishing capacity in the area.

How should aquaculture and fisheries research be made more productive so that it can contribute to adding greater value to fish and seafood products?

In general terms, scientific research must take into account the ecosystem approach to aquaculture to ensure the sustainability of this activity. Among the focus areas is the creation of integrated solutions that address the main technical bottlenecks throughout the value chain. Research should also lead to strategies that optimise production processes, marketing, the biotechnical organisation of companies, and the image and governance of the sector. Another important area is the control of inputs to improve technical productivity as well as the economic performance of the sector. To ensure the applicability of research it should be focused and respond to technical, environmental, economic, or social issues affecting the sector. Finally, by creating appropriate technical and scientific tools, research can assist the improvement of production systems, the development of value-added products, and socially responsible business plans.

Yassine Skandrani, Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Water Resources, and Fisheries of Tunisia