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The Loggerhead sea turtle was still alive, but barely. As it lay on its back on the pavement, occasionally flapping its fins, the fisherman who had caught it when it got stuck in his net a few miles off the coast of the Gaza Strip said he would take it home and eat it. The fisherman, who gave his name only as "Abu Mohamed," admitted that his catch was illegal. Loggerheads are classified internationally as an endangered species. But these days, environmental protection is rarely enforced in Gaza's waters. That's because, according to fishermen and local maritime officials, life has gotten far too desperate to play by the rules.
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007, when the Islamist group Hamas took control of the territory. The blockade has crippled Gaza's economy, leaving 85% of the population dependent on humanitarian aid to survive. At sea, fishermen are restricted to three nautical miles from the coast, creating a crowded, overfished shoreline. "The big fish can be found after six miles, but the fishermen cannot go that far, so they catch what's available," says Mohamed al-Hissi, who serves as a liaison for fishermen affairs at the General Syndicate of Marine Fishers in Gaza City.
Despite the hazards of fishing and a questionable future for Gaza's fishing industry, al-Hissi says fishing is still on the rise. "There are no other opportunities because people can no longer work in Israel. We used to have 100 small boats in use for fishing. Now we have 400." The new fishermen are putting added strain on an ecosystem already in peril, with some resorting to unconventional methods, such as dynamite or poison to kill the fish. "This is even more dangerous than the sewage," says al-Hissi.
At the main dock in Gaza city, many of the fishermen call their predicament "an economic war." Abu Mohamed, pulled empty nets from his boat after a fruitless night of fishing. Just hours before, in the early morning, Abu Mohamed's boat had been shot at. "This is terrorism," he said. "Sometimes we feel like we are fighting to fish."