Illegal ‘blast fishing’ to blame for rise in shark sightings, says Lebanese marine expert

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An illegal fishing method that uses explosives is being blamed for the rising numbers of sharks off the coast of Lebanon, amid social media panic about sightings and possible attacks.

Resorts have installed warning signs and told swimmers to be aware in the water following posts on social media showing sharks close to popular beaches.

Videos have shown the predators off the Sarafand-Zahrani shore to the south and off the Kaslik complex in Jounieh, while fishermen were recorded on Friday catching a small shark off Ouzai to the south of Beirut.

Mohammed Al-Sarji, a marine expert and spokesman for the Lebanon branch of the global diving group Naui, said that he believed sharks were being attracted close to shore due to illegal “blast fishing”, where explosives are dropped into shallow waters to quickly stun and kill large numbers of fish.

“This makes it easier for sharks to compete with fishermen for their fish,” Al-Sarji said. “This changes the behavior of sharks.”

He said that there had never been a fatal attack in Lebanese waters but warned that the predators were still a threat “if they mistake a (human) for their usual prey.”

Al-Sarji said blast fishing was dangerous, and that the explosive used was usually unstable ammonium nitrates found in agricultural fertilizers, mixed with sawdust — similar to that which destroyed Beirut’s port in Aug. 2020.

“Blast” fishermen prepare the mix by heating, then place it in bags and attach a fuse, before throwing the bomb in waters as close as 10 meters from the shore. “The bags explode, dead fish float to the surface and are then collected and sold.”

Two people were killed last year while preparing their explosives, he said, adding: “Despite this, fishermen still use it.”

Al-Sarji said blast fishing had helped strip Lebanese waters of fish, with many species including the striped red mullet all but gone. “Our sea is fish-free because we follow an unsustainable style of fishing.”

The Agriculture Ministry said that sharks in Lebanese waters were largely non-aggressive “unless provoked.”

It added that they were “environmentally important fish and are considered necessary to preserve marine ecosystems”. It wasn’t new to see the predators in Lebanese waters, it added.

“They have been present for thousands of years and Lebanon is obliged to protect these species,” it said. “All fishermen and seafarers need not be scared of these sharks, and they should protect them.”

Lebanon’s fishing industry is chaotic and lacks enforcement of regulation. The Agriculture Ministry estimates the number of fishermen at 8,000, whereas Al-Sarji estimates it at 100,000.

Al-Sarji warned that it is illegal to catch and kill sharks in the Mediterranean under an EU agreement aimed at protecting marine populations.

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