The Kerkennah islands are a small archipelago off the coast of Tunisia, in the Gulf of Gabès, with a population of just 15,000 people. Here, a small group of fisherman catch their food using an ancient and unusual method, known as the charfia. Traditional fishers of Kerkennah recounted their story at Slow Fish, as part of the meetings with fishing communities.
The charfia are elaborate systems constructed entirely from palm leaves, which stretch out from the shore to create a sort of labyrinth enclosure that fish then swim into but are then unable to escape from. It is found only here and in the region of Dejerba, and so counts as a living example of traditional knowledge being passed from generation to generation. However, the arrival of modernity, and with it climate change, is putting these islands and their ancient methods under intense pressure.
The first problem that the charfia fishers face concerns raw materials: specifically the palm tree. Since a severe drought in the 1980s, there has been depopulation both of humans and palm trees on the islands, and so the stability of the supply is more fragile than ever.
To make matters worse, a substantial portion of the land where palms once grew has been turned over for olive cultivation. Without palm leaves, some fishers have resorted to using plastic substitutes to recreate the charfia labyrinths, though they know this is bad for the environment, and seek to avoid it wherever possible.
The second problem relates to industrial fishing, which has intensified in recent decades and impacts the small-scale coastal fishermen massively, as less fish on the open sea means less arrive in coastal waters. On this front, however, the Kerkennah fishers organization has had some success lobbying the Tunisian government to enlarge a protected area where trawlers are not allowed.
The third and perhaps most pressing problem is of course one of culture, or rather, the lack of desire in younger generations to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors and continue the traditions they may see as superfluous and nostalgic.
This is what the fishers of the Kerkennah fishing community, now organized as a Slow Food Presidium, stressed most in their talk at Slow Fish. Feki Morsi, the coordinator, is joined by Hafed Ben Moussa, and Mohamed Ezzeddine, Hadi Ezzeddine and Neji Ezzeddine all stress the same point: “to keep these traditions alive, we’re working to revitalize this spirit of solidarity among small-scale traditional fishers and show young people how the charfia technique works first-hand, so they that might learn how to do it themselves.”
Slow Food is working with the Presidium to produce documents that will help spread the word of the charfia fishing technique and the people who practice it beyond the Kerkennah islands to the rest of Tunisia: to ensure its survival, its value to the country’s cultural heritage must be recognized on the mainland.