Toxic fish - it's a lose-lose situation

By Nathan Jeffay, May 9, 2008

Menachem Lev has been fishing on the Kinneret for 30 years. But this anniversary will be a bleak celebration. Kinneret fish are fast disappearing off the Israeli menu.

“People are going in to the shops and saying that they want fish from anywhere but here,” he says.

Lev, like many other fishermen, has not taken his boat out since the middle of February, when Israelis were revolted by pictures in the press of thousands of dead fish washed up on the shore, the result of a mass poisoning.

Two soldiers who ate the floating fish were admitted to Nahariya Hospital with abdominal pains, and Health Ministry assurances that poison had only reached the Tiberius marina of the Kinneret did little to stop a loss of public confidence in the lake’s fish.

The result is a 35 to 50 per cent drop in the market price, and plenty of idle fishing boats.

The Kinneret is plagued by over-fishing, so much so that the government recently banned fishing for one day a week, Tuesdays. Greedy fisherman illegally release a poison called Tionex which either stuns or kills the fish, and allows them to scoop up the contaminated-but-saleable spoils in nets.

“It affects the nervous system of fish and can also affect people,” says Chaim Anjioni, director of fisheries at the Ministry of Agriculture. “And the problem to the Kinneret is that fishermen who poison only catch 10 per cent of the polluted fish, killing many more than they can catch — this is the big damage.” A particularly large dose of poison in February is thought to account for the masses of dead fish.

Further reducing supplies is the fact that the owners of Galilee fish farms have scared birds away from their pools. As a result, estimates the Nature Authority, 6,000 to 7,000 birds regularly gather at the Kinneret to feast.

Stocks of the favourite Kinneret fish, tilapia, are worryingly low, reports Mr Anjioni. Two years ago, between 250 to 300 tonnes were caught; last year’s figure was barely 60 tonnes. Six to seven years ago, there were seven million tilapia. Now there are just 2.5 million. They are difficult to get hold of and if available cost around 135 per cent of the normal price.

So Lev, with his boat still beached, is not optimistic about the future of the Kinneret. He lambasts the government for “not knowing how to protect the lake. “If anything is to improve, they need to close the lake to all fishing for a year, perform tests to check everything, and start things up properly. This is the only way of getting things running well.”

Last updated: 11:48am, May 8 2008