Back To The Charfia

Tunisia | Sfax | Kerkennah

Have you ever heard of a charfia? This traditional fishing technique is typical of the Kerkennah, the splendid islands off the eastern coast of Tunisia.

Zied EzzedineThe word charfia literally means “house of death,” but despite the violent name this technique has a very low environmental impact and is an example of traditional sustainability. The fixed fishing system is made of palm leaves woven to form a maze. Fish swim inside and keep swimming until they reach a trap from which they cannot escape. The fishermen then collect them, easily selecting their catch, taking only the largest fish and quickly releasing the smaller ones.

Like many other traditional techniques, the charfia is disappearing for a number of reasons: declining fish stocks due to increased intensive fishing, the difficulties small-scale fishers must overcome to obtain permits and lack of interest among young people in a trade considered unproductive by the global market.

Certainly the charfia cannot compete with industrial fishing when it comes to volume, and if that’s the point of comparison, then there’s nothing more to be said. But fishing means also administering the sea, understanding it and respecting its rhythms, which are less familiar to us than those of the land. Indeed, the fact that we do not understand many of its dynamics does not mean that the sea is not a complex and delicate ecosystem, and most of all it does not mean we can plunder it as though its destiny does not concern us.

At least one person in Kerkennah has grown up making respect for the sea a priority: Zied Ezzedine, 27, who comes from a family of fishermen.

Zied Ezzedine2″I was 12 when I started to ask my father if I could come fishing with him. I had to get up at 4 in the morning but I didn’t care, I couldn’t wait for the school holidays to come so that I could go with him. At first he thought I was too young for life at sea, but in the end he gave into my persistence and I was allowed to go with him and give him a hand with the lighter jobs. I went with him and I watched him place the traps and select the fish one by one, taking care to throw the smallest back in the sea. This wasn’t a hundred years ago, but I can personally bear witness to how the sea had more fish back then. It was nothing like the results we get today.” Zied continues, speaking with a truly contagious enthusiasm: “In the following years I started to go out fishing with my uncle on boats that caught fish for industrial processing. He had a bigger boat than my father, he caught more and he sold his fish at higher prices. Working with him was a very important experience from a professional point of view and it allowed me at 16 to be an expert fisherman, able to captain a small boat. But at that point I had seen different techniques and I had already decided to return to the charfia.”

The fish caught with this technique has always been primarily for family consumption and still today only the surplus is sold at the market. The fishing industry’s concentration here has unfortunately caused a serious decline in the capacity of the island population to support itself.

“I’m a fisherman and I know the importance of constructing good networks between communities, both at a global and a local level. Here in Kerkennah we have set up the Baraka cooperative, for both fishing and farming. We have managed to organize to sell all of our catch ourselves, directly at the regional markets, so we can have higher margins and less pressure on the quantities produced. Additionally we are organizing to better protect our fishing sites and to avoid big fishing boats destroying our traps with their drag nets. On land, the cooperative’s members grow both food for local consumption and higher-value products that can help supplement their income. We also need palm cultivation to continue, so that we have the leaves to weave the charfia and carry on a tradition that has fed our community throughout our whole history.”

Article first published in La Repubblica Milano, July 15 2015

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