• This fisherman hold's up his catch for the day: only one fish. (Thomas Cunningham)Source: Thomas Cunningham
They've plied their trade for hundreds of years but today there are less than 60 fishing families, their livelihood under threat from local development.
Thomas Cunningham

The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour
21 Nov 2016 - 4:37 PM  UPDATED 24 Nov 2016 - 10:16 AM

As the sun sets over Aqaba, the first fisherman drifts slowly back into the dock.

An expectant crowd gathers by the shoreline. Some call out, asking about the day’s catch and how much it’s going to cost them.

The fisherman shakes his head. Today, he’s only caught the one fish. He will keep it for his family’s dinner.

This is a scene all too common now in the fishing town, located in Jordan’s south. Increasing tourism, border restrictions and over-fishing have meant more fishermen are returning empty-handed.

Today, he’s only caught the one fish. He will keep it for his family’s dinner.

Dr Mohammad Tawaha, who manages the marine conservation programme in Aqaba, works with the fishermen, trying to create an environmentally sustainable industry. He says, 30 years ago there were more than 400 families fishing here. Now, there are less than 60.

In the next five to 10 years, another 15 to 20 of these families will need to find other work, he adds.

Commercial fishing is more than a job here. Fathers hand the role down to their sons, who hand it down to theirs. Men have fished on these waters for hundreds of years.

Setting off at the break of dawn, they head out everyday to try and catch enough to both sell at market and feed their families. They are looking for swordfish, tuna and sardines. Sometimes they even catch mako shark, as one fisherman did a day or two earlier.

The traditional method of dropping weighted lines into the deep water is still used today. Fishermen leave them submerged for a few hours and return at midday to pull them back up. It’s physically demanding, as they must heave up to 500 metres of line from the ocean floor, along with the weight of the catch. Sometimes they repeat the process again in the afternoon.

It’s physically demanding, as they must heave up to 500 metres of line from the ocean floor, along with the weight of the catch. 

Although fishing does not contribute much to the economy, the culture permeates the region. Dr Tawaha says the way people dress, what they eat, and the lyrics to their songs, all come from the sea.

Aqaba is on the Red Sea, in an area that borders Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. The water is busy with traders and tourist boats, and with navy vessels patrolling each country’s border.

In 2001, the Jordanian Government established the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZ) to capitalise on this flow of trade. This meant the town became a low-tax, duty-free and multi-sectorial development area. Before then, fishermen could find fish up to 27 kilometres from the shore, but due to tourism, extensions to the main port and increased security, they are now only allowed to travel five kilometres from the coast.

The restriction of the fishing area has led to over-fishing and damages to the sea environment, Dr Tawaha says.

Speaking through a translator at his family-owned fish market, fishmonger Shehdah Al-Natsha says he is worried that the restrictions and development in the area are killing fishing culture.

The day’s delivery of just two-and-half boxes of fish sits at the front of his store.

Al-Natsha’s whole life revolves around fishing. In his spare time, Al-Natsha is an award-winning sports fisherman. All of his brothers and cousins work in the industry.

“I must try and keep the culture alive, for my sons,” Al-Natsha says.

In the summer months, fish in the Gulf of Aqaba migrate south to cooler waters. The industry’s average catch of 23,000 kilograms in April falls to less than 400 kilograms in June.

“I must try and keep the culture alive, for my sons.”

During the breeding months, neighbouring countries Egypt and Saudi Arabia stop fishing, allowing stocks to replenish. But lack of regulation has meant this does not happen in Aqaba. Dr Tawaha says this reduces sustainability, but fishermen need a clear incentive to stop during these months.

“We need to give them the solution, not the idea,” he tells SBS.

Some have found extra income taking tourists out in glass-bottom boats. This offers travellers a chance to see some of the impressive sea life and provides livelihoods for fishermen during low season.

According to Dr Tawaha, some of the fishermen who have been forced to leave the job completely can struggle to let the sea go.

“I know people, they are teachers now. They go for fishing when they finish school. At two or three o’clock, they still go fishing,” he says.

The sun is setting now at the dock, as the last few fishermen arrive back. For border security reasons, they are not allowed to be out after sunset. Some have had a good day, catching enough to sell.

Some of the fishermen who have been forced to leave the job completely can struggle to let the sea go. 

Omar Bdair sits with a group of older fishermen, swapping stories and drinking Turkish coffee. He has fished here for 40 years and started taking his son out with him when he was just three years old.

Bdair says the dock still looks the same as when he started, but there are far fewer boats now.

The fishermen are not sure what the future holds for them. All they know is to fish and provide for their families. As long as they can do that, their customs and traditions will survive.


The author travelled to Jordan as part of The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour. Read more stories form this series:

A herbivore’s guide to Jordan
From crisp falafel to colourful salads and stuffed breads, there are delicious options for vegetarians among Jordan's traditional foods.
How Zumba is helping Syrian refugee women to heal
Female Syrian refugees in Jordan are taking up Zumba to help them recover from the trauma of war.
The Middle East’s first self-defence gym for women
She Fighter is empowering its students through martial arts, with a mission to end domestic violence in Jordan, and a letter of approval from Barack Obama.
The Arab cooking school keeping a grandmother’s recipes alive
Three sisters have been carrying on the tradition of their grandmother’s Jordanian recipes.
Meet the people restoring Madaba’s magnificent mosaics
Jordan has a rich mosaic making tradition, dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods. There are thousands of sites, posing huge conservation challenges for a small institute charged with the job of training people to protect them.
Desert cultures connect through art
A small gallery in Amman offers locals and tourists a glimpse into contemporary Australian and Jordanian art.
Breaking down cultural barriers through skateboarding
Jordan’s first skate park is building human connections between Jordanian youth and young refugees.

The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour is a joint UTS and Swinburne University project, supported by the Commonwealth through the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.