Laith A. Jawad 15 Birkinshaw Grove, Upper Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand Abstract

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Marina Mesopotamica Online Volume 1, Number 1, pp. 1 – 37 (2006)

Fishing Gear and Methods of the Lower Mesopotamian Plain with Reference to Fishing Management

Laith A. Jawad

15 Birkinshaw Grove, Upper Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand


Marine and freshwater fishing gear and methods are described from the lower Mesopotamian plain. In this region, there are four main fishing methods in the marshlands and three in the local marine habitat. The most popular fishing technique in those areas is the use of nets. Both active and passive fishing gear are categorised in the studied area. Locally-designed fishing methods by Marsh Arabs are also described. Although the Marsh Arabs seem to stick to the traditional fishing gear and methods, such gear is not efficient enough to provide a catch that can maintain better income for the fishers. To the contrary, fishers operating in the marine habitat of the lower Mesopotamian plain use fairly up-to-date fishing gear and techniques. The marshland restoration plan through its ecocultural restoration steps will save the tradition and heritage of the Marsh Arabs in particular and the Iraqis in general by enabling the fishers to use their traditional fishing methods and gear whenever these are compatible with good conservation practices.

The effect of each type of fishing gear and methods is discussed from a conservation point of view. In addition, several conservation issues were raised and discussed, i.e. non-target animals and by-catch. Non-target animals were usually associated with the target animals and were usually caught with them and then destroyed. By-catch is usually thrown away into the sea or left on the bank of the marshlands after the net is pulled out. Responsibility for checking mesh size and issuing fishing licences at the present time is loose and not controlled. Fishers in both marshlands and marine habitat are currently working without any regulations.
Fishermen in the lower Mesopotamian plain are well familiar with the boundaries of the fishing grounds and respect these as a part of their tradition. The fishing grounds that are characterised by species of high value are usually owned by the stronger tribe or exploited by companies that use better fishing vessels. Social and religious factors were shown to have marked effects on the fishing activity, which can, in turn, confound fisheries assessment.
Traditional management systems can be implemented in the marshlands. Such systems are still operational in spite of the population growth, changes in legal systems, urbanization, commercialisation and technological change.
The impact of fishing activity on the aquatic habitat was studied in the marshlands and the marine habitat. It is clear that there is a substantial impact on the aquatic habitat by artisanal and modern fishing methods and gear.
Further suggestions for fisheries management and steps for the rehabilitation of the aquatic environment are put forward to help future workers to understand these problems. Such suggestions are discussed in relation to the nature of the environment in both the marshlands and the marine habitat and the way of life of the people living in those areas.

Correspondence: Laith A. Jawad, 15 Birkinshaw Grove, Upper Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand. E-mail: .

Fisheries may play a vital role in providing food, income and employment in many parts of the world (Jennings et al., 2001). Fishing is a profitable and effective way of getting food, since artisanal fishermen only harvest what they need.
Mesopotamia lies in the northwestern part of the west Asian subregion (Sino-Indian Region) (Almaca, 1991). The region of the lower Mesopotamian plain is characterised by its unique geographical situation. It is bounded by the northwest corner of the Arabian Gulf and its northern borders face the greater marsh area of Iraq (30° to 33° N, 45° to 48° E) (Figure 1). There have been two main competing theories of how the characteristic features of the region developed. Lees and Falcon (1952) insisted that there was no evidence that the northern extent of the Gulf had ever varied significantly from its present limits since the early Pliocene. They asserted that the Tigris-Euphrates-Karun Delta had been very stable during the Quaternary period, without appreciable progradation of the delta, due to a delicate balance between subsidence and deposition of sediments (Sanlaville, 2001). Later studies, especially those of Larson (1975) and Sanlaville (1989), criticised their assertions. More recently, Aqrawi (2001) stated that plotting his own radiometric dating results for lower Mesopotamia (Aqrawi, 1993) together with others’ results from Bubiyan Island (Al-Zamel, 1983) and from the Fao Peninsula and other world regions (Godwin et al., 1958) confirmed the global Holocene sea-level changes theory rather than the regional tectonic subsidence hypothesis of Lees and Falcon (1952). The largest marsh, Hawr al-Hammar, has a historically recent origin that goes back to about 636 A.D. (Banister, 1980; Berry et al., 1970, Rzóska 1980).

Figure 1. Southern marshes of Iraq (Al-Yamani et al., 2004)
The Mesopotamian marshlands once constituted the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East and Western Eurasia (Maltby, 1994; Nicholson and Clark, 2002). The Mesopotamian marshes are important for economic, social, and biodiversity values characterised by frequency of water flows, accumulation of nutrients and organic matter and the production of commercially important vegetation and fish (USAID, 2004). Marshes serve a variety of functions for human and other ecosystems including: acting as huge settling tanks for the silt deposited by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (Wilson, 1925); acting as a natural filter for water and other pollutants in the two rivers (Partow, 2001); acting as a natural sponge storing water during high river flow and releasing water during low flow; creating nursery grounds for fish and aquatic birds and refuges for terrestrial animals (USAID, 2004); and being highly productive in vegetation cover (e.g. reeds) harvested commercially for building material, mats, and cattle forage. They are an important stopover along the inter-continental flyway of migratory birds, support endangered species, and sustain freshwater fisheries. In addition, they have been home to indigenous human communities for millennia and are regarded as the site of the legendary “Garden of Eden” (Eden Again Project, 2003).
Besides the water masses of the marshlands and the north west regions of the Arabian Gulf, there are two more main water bodies in the area that contribute to the local freshwater/sea water fish industry: the Shatt al-Arab River running through Basrah City, and the Shatt al-Basrah Canal connecting the marshlands to the Arabian Gulf area (Al-Hassan & Hussain, 1985). The connection between the marshlands and the Arabian Gulf is quite strong. The coastal fisheries at the north of the Gulf depend mainly on the flow of nutrients from the marshlands through the Shatt al-Arab River. On the other hand, the marsh area represents a spawning migration and nursery grounds for the most commercial penaeid shrimp, Metapenaeus affinis, and a number of migratory fish species such as Tenualosa ilisha and Nematalosa nasus (UNEP, 2000, Al-Hassan et al., 1989).
The variety of water masses and habitat diversity is associated with great fish biodiversity in the area. This is evident through the fish catch on offer at the central fish market at Basrah City. On the other hand, the habitat diversity allowed the native people of the lower Mesopotamian plain to use different types of fishing gear. Two strictly different groups of fish were fished in this area, freshwater fishes from the main rivers and the marshlands and marine fish species from the northwest region of the Arabian Gulf. According to Ali et al. (2005), sixty-six fish species inhabit freshwater systems of Iraq while 440 species are marine, and 16 species inhabit estuaries. However, the number of fish species reported by the authors is not yet taxonomically confirmed. Of these marshland species, Table 1 shows the common commercial fish species of the marshlands.
Most traditional fishing methods and management patterns are still applicable at the present time. A clear example of such issues can be drawn from the artisanal fisheries in the Arabian Gulf area (Al-Yamani et al., 2004). However, there are a number of obstacles that might face the encouragement to use them. Among these obstacles are the social and educational levels of the fishers operating in the lower Mesopotamian plain and the managerial level of the fisheries authority that will be responsible for control and implementation.
The aim of the present study is to review the fishing gear methods used by people of the lower Mesopotamian plain and to report on the future issues of fisheries management in this area.
Table 1. List of the commercial fish species occurring in the Iraqi marshlands. Species are arranged according to their importance as food.

Scientific Name

Common Name

Barbus sharpeyi Gunther


Barbus xanthopterus (Heckel)


Barbus luteus Heckel


Aspius vorax Heckel


Carassius auratus (Linnaeus)


Ctenopharyngodon idella (Valenciennes)


Cyprinus carpio Linnaeus


Hypophthalmichthys molitrix



Tenualosa ilisha


Liza abu (Heckel)


Nematalosa nasus (Bloch)


Silurus triostegus Heckel


Alburnus mossulensis Berg


Mugil dussumieri (Valenciennes & Cuvier)


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