Almost 30km north of Damietta, at the end of a very narrow and unpaved road alongside a dirty canal filled with rubbish, lies the small fishermen village of Ezbet El-Borg.
It is rarely visited by officials, and the hundreds of fishermen in the village live an anonymous existence, while facing the dangers of sailing out on the Mediterranean Sea on a near daily basis.
The fishermen community in Ezbet El-Borg is organised by the Fishermen Association, the Association of Fishing Boats Owners in Ezbet El-Borg and the Fishermen Fund.
“Everything we have was made through self-efforts and self-funding such as donations by fishermen themselves,” says Araby Khalil, Secretary-General of the Fishermen Fund.
Ezbet El-Borg’s fishermen live day-by-day, struggling to make a living. Having been in the business for decades, they say they have developed themselves over the years, while the state has not contributed to their improvement or empowerment since the 1980s.
With no health insurance and small pensions after the age of 65, Khalil says fishermen have never cost the state much.
“All we ask for is facilitations to our business, instead of complications,” Khalil explained.
The ‘complications’ in question are that 2,387 fishing boats in Ezbet El-Borg are facing the threat of having their licences revoked if they fail to abide by the safety requirements of Egyptian Authority for Maritime Safety (EAMS).
The decision, issued in previous years by EAMS and the Maritime Transport Section (MTS) affiliated with the Ministry of Transportation, has been postponed to 2017 in a meeting with the fishermen in March 2014.
However, EAMS warned fisherman in March 2015 that if they do not buy safety equipment their licences should be stopped by 12 April.
According to Fishermen Association head Hossam Wafdy Khalil, the decision has once more been temporarily put off, yet the problem persists.
“On one hand, we have most of the required communication means already but the ministry does not want to approve them,” Wafdy Khalil said. “On the other hand, some of the equipment is unnecessary for small fishing boats, and too expensive for fishermen to afford.”
In a visit to Ezbet El-Borg a day before the deadline was supposedly due, fishermen and boat owners told Daily News Egypt about the daily hardships they face.
A conflict with the government
According to ‘Hadj’ Araby, who is considered a ‘godfather’ by the fishermen community, safety is the hardest part of the business. The hardship they face is the reason why the fishing business lacks labour, despite high unemployment rates across the country.
Fishing community leaders held a meeting on 30 March 2014 to discuss their problems, and particularly the safety requirements issue. The meeting was attended by officials from the Ministry of Transportation such as Ibrahim Youssef, former Deputy Minister for Maritime Affairs, Adel Yassin, head of MTS and Adel Omran, former head of EAMS.
It was agreed that fishing boats with of under 24 metres in length should be spared from applying international safety standards. For the rest, the decision was extended by five years, during which EAMS should prepare fishermen and their boats to make the transition effectively.
“But nothing happened that year,” Araby said. This was despite the agreement being that EAMS should also provide fishermen with training courses related to boat management and safety, as the law also requires them to hold certificates.
A year later, the decision returned to the table, and fishermen were informed that their licences would be suspended if they do not apply the standards.
“The government wants us to have at least 10 different types of safety equipment on every boat,” according to member of the board of directors of the Fishermen Association, Magdy El-Mowafy.
Those include various means of communication through radio and satellite, navigation systems through GPS and VHF radio marine vessel tracing devices and waste tanks.
Aside from equipments that fishermen consider non-affordable and unfit for their boats – like the waste tanks which are big in size – most boats have been operating for decades and have acquired communication facilities throughout the years.
“Why should we buy new equipment when we already have it?” Mowafy said, accusing the state of wanting to make more money regardless of the fishermen’s situation.
The needed equipment, according to what the fishermen understood from officials, should be bought from the ministries of Transportation and Telecommunications.
Fishermen said they accumulated equipment from all over the world, either as presents or scrap equipment, for which they do not have documents to be able to licence them.
However, Araby said they tried to issue licences in the 90’s, but the government refused to do so, even though at the time they were providing touristic boats with licences for the same equipment.
Meanwhile, Wafdy blames the issue on the new appointments made in the ministry and calls it an “arbitrary decision”.
Minister of Transportation Hany Dahi replaced his deputy assistant for maritime affairs, and Tarek El-Seidy was appointed head of EAMS by mid-2014. There has also been a change of Damietta governor Mohammed Abdullatif, who was replaced by Ismail Taha last February.
“The new head of EAMS is defying the Ministry of Transportation’s decision to extend our deadline to 2017. But the former governor found us a way out through a flaw in the law that allowed us to gain more time,” Wafdy stated.
He explained that fishermen were able to renew their licences before they expired in the first place which granted them more months.
“What the government tried to do is give us separate deadlines in order to weaken our collective pressure and turn it into individual complaints,” Wafdy said.
However, he stated that the maximum obtained grace period was one year, and that the issue will re-emerge next March. “We do not know what more to do after contacting all possible institutions. We’re just seeking escalation through the media to shed light on our struggle,” he added.
Hassan Khalil, a grand fisherman considered a local hero for helping free 36 kidnapped fishermen in Somalia in 2009, said that “the will for making money on behalf of the public is behind the officials’ obstinacy”.
“I’m willing to meet with [Prime Minister Ibrahim] Mehleb and President [Abdel Fattah] Al-Sisi, and tell them what is happening on the ground, instead of how it looks on paper,” he added.
Wafdy revealed that three months ago, the fishermen sent a letter to Mehleb explaining the situation and asking to meet him. Months went by with no response.
But as Araby put it: “Fishermen only care for their work, they’re not the rebellious type and demonstrations or strikes are not something they would want to do.”
“Where was maritime safety from Egyptian boats drowning? We have been in the business for decades and so we are capable of determining what we need and what we don’t need,” he stated, adding that fishermen were able to improve themselves over the years and even use satellite devices in English despite illiteracy.
Fishing, safety and the business
“We follow fish wherever they go,” says Samir Abou Alaa, a boat owner, who admits that by installing tracking devices they risk “limitations and restrictions on their movements in the sea”.
When asked whether tracking devices would be helpful in emergency cases, Abou Alaa and the others said that authorities do not respond to rescue calls. “I recall that one night, our men were drowning in Kafr El-Sheikh and the last man standing was a 17-year-old boy. Nobody moved for them,” Abou Alaa said.
“When fishermen are in trouble, they call their families for help through their mobile phones,” said another fisherman named Ashraf Mohamed. Mohamed was previously arrested and imprisoned in Al-Arish for charges of illegal presence in the water despite permits to work in local and regional waters. “There were more than 100 fishing boats, but they picked me,” he said.
Fishermen are under the authority of the General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD), affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture. They risk their lives out in the sea, face arrests inside the country, yet consider themselves the “state’s eyes in the sea”.
Wafdy admits some boats profit from illegal immigration, or illegal trafficking but says those are exceptions to the majority, which “endures a lot out of love for their country”.
Fishermen said they bring in types of seafood that get exported and contribute to bringing in foreign currency into this country. They complain that the government wants them to pay more without any services in return.
Furthermore, they struggle to make a living and face the obstacles of not finding fish, in addition to the threats posed by illegal fishing of small fisheries and sewage waste in the sea.
Mohamed Khalil explains that they sell a box of 20kg-24kg of fish at EGP 300 in the market. “Then I go buy 1kg for EGP 40 or 50,” he stated, which is cheaper than Cairo.
On the other hand, small fish hunters sell for high prices and despite the illegitimacy of their business; they seem well protected by people who enjoy wide connections with officials, according to Khalil and Abou Alaa.
The GAFRD “do not fulfil their promises, they are corrupt and recruit their employees through connections,” Abu ‘Alaa said referring to new competition from what he says are “untrained small-scale fisheries”.
He added that GAFRD is “only interested in making business out of the fishermen” while he has been fishing for 30 years, Abu ‘Alaa said that he was not allowed to locate in Safagah, Hurghada, while others were allowed to because they had connections within the GAFRD.
Some of the fishermen also stated their demand for a new ministry, one that is independent from the Ministry of Agriculture. This is because a ministry dedicated just to fishing “will be better equipped” than the GAFRD, they said.
“In the upcoming years, Egyptians will not find fish to eat,” Abu ‘Alaa said, blaming the deterioration of the water resources and fish in Egypt on the Ministry of Agriculture.
“The fish are fed wastes, they eat blood and other dead fish, and so they become infested with disease,” Abu ‘Alaa added that feeding fish is expensive and the Ministry “does not want to pay”.
According to the fishermen, many also are not held accountable for illegal activities in the water because they have connections with the Ministry of Agriculture. Money and gas are frequently smuggled outside of the country, Abu ‘Alaa said, adding “there is no law in Egypt”.
Fishermen on the “hunt”
The average minimum time fishing boats spend overseas is 20 days, according to fisherman Mohamed Khalil, who explains that they must make sufficient earning to cover boat expenses.
Furthermore, Khalil explained that there is a “dead” season for fishing between October and May. Fishermen of Ezbet El-Borg have licences to fish in local and regional waters. According to Wafdy, protocols signed with other countries are usually benefiting to the fishing business, especially those working in international waters.
Mohamed Ali Al-Ghudeir, a middle-aged man who worked in Eritrea for 20 years, said that dozens of young Egyptian men leave the country to work in places where they may be exploited without accountability.
He mentioned Tarek Serag, an Eritrean businessman who takes Egyptian labour from Damietta to work in Eritrea.
“Often they will not be paid, or they will be overworked, and if they oppose this while they are abroad, they may end up in an Eritrean jail because this man has connections with the police forces in Eritrea.”
Al-Ghudeir spent 35 days in an Eritrean jail because of a quarrel with Serag. “He knows that no one will hold him accountable for this in Egypt,” Al-Ghudeir said. He added that Somalis and other nationalities also work for these businessmen and “treated just as badly”.
As for increasing reports on detained fishermen, Wafdy stated foreign relations deteriorated during former president Mohamed Morsi’s times and have not fully recovered since, which greatly affected on the degree of positive cooperation from other countries. “It is harder to negotiate or allow fishermen to move freely in other countries’ water,” Wafdy said.
Even locally, fishermen of Ezbet El-Borg still remember an infamous incident in 2014 when a navy vessel was attacked and they were blamed.
The attack took place on 12 November, 40 miles north of Damietta port, when gunmen opened fire on the navy vessel. Eight navy personnel went missing as a result of the attack, which was surrounded by rumours.
Abou Alaa recalled the incident: “Following the attack and while the navy patrol was heading to the scene of the attack they found three fishing boats which they attacked, thinking they were behind the attack on the vessel.”
Remembering the incident, Wafdy said that fishermen paid the price when authorities arrested 32 fishermen on board of three boats, drowning one and burning another.
Abou Alaa added that the authorities later released the fishermen and compensated for the damages they made to the boats. However, he doesn’t forget how media and “strategic analysts” narrated the incident hurrying to blame the fishermen for the attack.