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

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Historical perspective

Fish have been the major food item in Mesopotamia over the last 5000 years apart from milk and grain. Fish were considered as one of the sources of early human civilization in the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers with their tributaries and coastal waters of the Arabian Gulf (Sahrhage, 1999). Many kinds of fish are mentioned in administrative documents from the third millennium B. C. up to the period of the first dynasty in Babylon. A Sumerian text from about 2000 B. C. describes the habits and appearance of many species of fish in some detail (Saggs, 1962). The inhabitants of Babylonia were no less interested in the observation of animals, and fish were as accurately and recognizably depicted on the bas-relief as were contemporary mammals.

Ancient people of Mesopotamia had skilful ways of preparing fish for food that included eating it fresh, salted, smoked, and dried in the sun (Maspero, 1896). Fish was not just considered a food for the poor people, but was also included in the menu for the palace of kings of Mesopotamia (Postgate, 1994). Moreover, it was included among the food that was offered to the gods in temples (Saggs, 1987). Fishermen were actually found in large numbers amongst the temple personnel, being divided into “freshwater fishers,” “sea fishers,” and “fishers in salt waters.” The latter group denotes fishermen operating in the tidal lagoons of the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. According to the code of Hammurabi, fishermen were given some rights similar to those given to certain classes of society like priestesses and merchants (Postgate, 1994). Fishing techniques such as spearing, harpooning, angling, and the use of baskets and various other types of nets were already well developed during the time of ancient Mesopotamia (Sahrhage, 1999).

Fishing gears and methods of the lower Mesopotamian plain

Iraq has the richest water resources among countries in the Middle East due to the presence of the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, smaller rivers such as Shatt al-Arab and Shatt al-Basrah, the great marshland area, and the northwest sector of the Arabian Gulf. As a consequence, fisheries resources, both freshwater and marine, are an important source of revenue for the country. Fish production is remarkably low throughout the region due to use of old-fashioned fishing gear and methods which are not sufficient to fulfil the continuous demand of this vital commodity (AOAD, 1986).

It is not only important to know the description of the traditional fishing methods used in the marshlands, but it is also important to understand that such methods are among the Marsh Arabs’ tradition and culture. They are also considered so for the Iraqi national heritage. At the present time and with the start of the ecocultural marshlands restoration, such tradition and heritage will be restored.
Fishing gear is conveniently divided into two broad categories based on the method of capture: active gear that is propelled or towed in pursuit of the target species, or passive gear, which target species move into or towards (Table 2) (Jennings et al., 2001). There is a multitude of different net designs, each developed to catch particular species or for fishing in a particular environment (Von Brandt, 1984, Sainsbury, 1996). More specifically, Botros (1968) divided fishing gear into three main groups, i.e. entangling, luring and pursuit. Both active and passive primitive gear and methods are used to catch fish in the lower plain of Mesopotamia, where the native people of the marshlands follow their own fishing methods that they invent (Al-Khait, 1978). Differences in the fishing areas within the lower Mesopotamian plain will directly affect the type of fishing gear and methods to be used. Sometimes different gear and methods were used at the same place due to such factors as the behaviour of target fish and the nature of the bottom.
Table 2. Fishing methods, period of fishing, and amount of catch in the lower Mesopotamian plain.

Fishing Methods

No. of fishermen required

Period of fishing (hours)

Amount of catch

Surface Gill Net



6-11 Kg

Seine Net



500-2500 Kg

Cast Net



2-3 Kg

Pot trap



2-4 fish




One fish

Hook & Line



One fish

Long Line



30-40 fish

Drift Net



10-15 Kg

Gargoor Trap



9-12 Kg

Valve Room Trap



9-15 Kg

Milan Trap



15-20 Kg

Hadra Trap



10-15 Kg

People in lower Mesopotamia fish in all seasons, but fishing becomes very heavy from March to May when there is internal migration of a member of the carp family (Cyprinidae) toward the marsh area for reproduction (Al-Hamed, 1966). This phenomenon is locally known as “Zara” (Arabic local dialect for schooling).

  1. Fishing gear and methods in the marshlands and rivers

I. Nets
1- Surface Gill Net (Figure 2): Surface gill nets derive their name from their main method of capture. Their simplicity of construction and operation makes them one of the most basic and widespread methods for fishing in the inland waters and the preferred method in most lakes. In addition, gill nets are vulnerable to poaching and operators frequently spend the night watching over their gear (Wellcome, 2001). Gill nets are among the most selective fishing gear with respect to the size range of target species captured. They can be highly selective for size classes of the target species provided the net is well serviced and tended regularly. As fish attempt to swim through the mesh of the net, they become snagged by their gill operculum, fins or by their scales. Small undersized fish usually are able to swim through the mesh unharmed, whereas excessively large fish are unable to penetrate the mesh sufficiently to become trapped. Gill nets are basically a series of panels of meshes with a lead footrope and a headline with floats.

Figure 2 (left). Surface gill net. A small boat is usually used to operate this type of net.

Figure 3 (right). Seine net. Several people need to operate this large and heavy net. (Al-Yamani et al., 2004)
Fishermen in the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Shatt al-Arab River, and the Shatt al-Basrah Canal also use these types of nets. The usual gill net size used in the marshland is 180 x 270 ft. Headline floats are made of pieces of date palm stems, while the footrope is weighted with small stones rather than lead. Different construction methods are used for nets with different mesh sizes. The common legal gill net is called “Suba’e” (Suba’a: Arabic for seven), where there are seven mesh holes to the foot. The illegal gill net is called “Hedash” (Heda’ash: Arabic for eleven) where there are eleven mesh holes to the foot. The latter are considered illegal due to their small mesh-size, which can capture the undersized fish. The locals in the shallow marsh areas characteristically direct fish towards the net by using noise generated by hitting empty tins to lead fish toward the nets.
2- Seine Net (Figure 3): Seine nets are encircling nets of various types. The main two seine nets are the purse seine and the Danish seine net. The former is for encircling schools of fish on or very near the surface, and the latter is for bottom schooling fishing. The usual size of this net used in the marshlands ranges between 400-1000 meters long and 6-7 meters in height. The full efficiency of this net can yield 500-2500 kg of fish (Al-Khait, 1978). There are usually 20-50 pockets connected to the main panel of the net. The local people of the marshlands anchor one end of the net to the shore while the other end is taken away by small boat, paying out the net in a circle, eventually returning to pick up the anchored end before hauling. The fish captured using this technique are usually landed in excellent condition, because they spend little time in the purse, and command a high price at market. The effectiveness of fishing is partly due to the movement of the warps across the bottom, which disturbs and guides the fish within the area being worked. Several species of fish are

energetic jumpers and may escape by leaping over the net as it is closed. Sometimes illegal small-meshed nets are used in the area.

There are several types of seine net used in the inland water bodies in southern Mesopotamia, all depending on the size of the mesh.

Figure 4 (left). Cast net. One person operates this net.

Figure 5 (right). Pot trap.
3-Cast Net (Figure 4): The cast net is circular, measuring from 5-6 meters in diameter, with bars of lead attached to the edge, and is used by a single fisherman. The cheapness and transportability make cast nets one of the most common gears in inland water fisheries. They are popular with artisanal and subsistence fisheries. There are over 20 brail lines attached to a 9-meter hand line made of sash cord, which causes the net to pouch or bag around the trapped fish with the help of the lead at the edge of the net. One end of the hand line is tied to the wrist to leave both hands free to throw the net. The fisherman either stands in shallow water or in a boat and throws the net forcefully out onto the water, where it lands like a parachute and sinks to the bottom. Cast nets are selective for lower size ranges, and larger, faster-moving fish can escape the falling net but may become entangled in the process (Wellcome, 2001). The catching efficiency may be improved by the addition of pockets at the circumference. The cast net for big fish has a larger mesh and heavier sinkers. The marshlands native people usually retrieve the catch by taking the net up into the boat with the catch inside. There are some illegal versions of this net where a small mesh size is used.
II. Pot Trap (Figure 5)

Pot traps are among the most primitive of fishing implements and have remained little changed. Generally, traps take advantage of the movements of fishes along a tidal gradient or migration route. This type of trap is basically designed to catch crustaceans, but the native people at the marshlands found it good for catching fish. Most pots are similar in design: comprising a ridged frame usually made of palm leaves, with a mesh covering in which there is a single entrance. The entrance is fitted with baffles to prevent animals from escaping. Pot traps are mainly used at the time of breeding migration.

Pots are usually deployed randomly with both ends anchored and marked by a surface float of date palm bark. Most local fishers use “dough” or a piece of unwanted fish as bait. Pots tend to be set for longer than other gear, as it takes time for the bait within the pot to begin to attract the target species. Catch rate increases over several days as the feeding activities of animals consuming the bait increases the dispersion of attractant odours. The most potent attractants released by the bait are amino acids and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) (Zimmer-Faust, 1993). Pots buoys characteristically bear the owner’s mark, and individuals from different marsh Arab tribes generally respect pots of the other tribes and do not poach them. This behaviour arose from their religious and cultural origin.

Figure 6 (left). Different types of spears used in fishing by Marsh Arabs.

Figure 7 (right). Hook and Line, a famous personal fishing method in the lower Mesopotamian plain.
III. Spears (Figure 6)

The use of spears to catch fish is among the most ancient forms of hunting and they are still used to the present day. Sumerians and Babylonians used spears of various designs to catch species of barbel in the rivers and marshlands of southern Mesopotamia (Saggs, 1987). Similar spears are in use by modern Ma’dan tribes (Marsh Arabs) (Hadid and Al-Mahdawi, 1977).

The type of spear usually used in the marshlands is generally comprised of a 2-meter handle, usually of hard palm tree wood, tipped with single or multiple pointed heads. The spear is used from a standing position in a small canoe. Most of the time, the fishermen throw some food items in the water to attract fish. This fishing method is used mainly at night where fishermen take with them an oil lantern to attract fish to the surface of the water. Spear fishing is a quick fishing method, but it is dangerous from a hygiene standpoint, as the spear head is seldom clean and may contaminate the catch. This becomes evident when the longer the catch remains before eating or selling at the local market. Marshlands fishermen often sell their spear fishing catch at the nearest city fish markets, which are often been overseen by regional health and safety officials.
IV. Hook and line (Figure 7)
The ancient Mesopotamian people used this type of fishing method, different types of hooks having been discovered during the excavations in both Sumeria and Babylonia (Sahrhage, 1999). They are also mentioned in the writings of the ancient Mesopotamians (Contenau, 1954). At the present time, Mad’an tribes living in the marshlands of southern Iraq use similar types of hooks to catch fish. Instead of lures, the local people use various baits such as meat, small fish and dough in their hook and line fishing gear. Movement of the line when fish are eating the bait is indicated by a piece of date palm bark connected to the line and floating on the surface of the water.
In the centre of the marshlands, Marsh Arabs have a few other primitive methods of catching fish (Al-Khait, 1978). These are:

Figure 8. Al-Shiah (Mud Dams) fishing method. A unique fishing method used by Marsh Arabs.
A- Al-Shiah (Mud Dams) (Figure 8): In this very primitive fishing method, the fisherman makes a small mud dam across an enclosed water area and covers its entrance with a net made of cotton threads. The hole in the net is designed to let the fish in only. On the top of the net, near the surface, the fisherman usually fastens some empty tins so that they make noise when the net moves as the fish enter. Then the fisherman jumps in the enclosed area and catches fish by hand or encircles them with a piece of cloth.

Figure 9. Al-Suwaise (Burning fishing method). a. (left): Selected small reed island with net surrounding its base. b. (right): Island on fire; fish swimming to the edges of the island where they are caught by the net.
B-Al-Suwaise (Burning Method) (Figures 9a, 9b): In this method, the fisherman chooses a small reed island, encircles it with a net, and then sets fire to the reeds. Fish will move away from the shore of the island towards the net.

Figure 10. Al-Tawamees fishing method. Man standing on the top of a small reed island holding a rope tied to the ankle of another man diving below trying to catch fish.
C- Al-Tawamees (Fishing by diving) (Figure 10): Small reed floating islands are selected for this type of fishing. More than one fisherman is involved in this operation. A hole is dug in the floor of the reed island by one of the fishermen, whilst the other ties a rope to his ankle. He then enters the water through the hole, leaving the other fisherman to hold the rope. This is used as a guide to the diver to surface. The fish are caught by hand one at a time. The diver paralyses the fish by bending, breaking its backbone.
D-Al-Zahar (Fishing with poison): The marshland Arabs have a very thorough knowledge of the nature of the aquatic plants living in their areas. They knew them by local names given by their ancestors over the long history of the marshlands, the names relating to the physiological action of the individual plant species. They also knew what could be extracted from each plant and for what purpose it could be used. The common name of the plant that they usually used as a poison to kill fish is “Neem” (Azadirachta indica, Family: Miliaceae). They usually crush the plants and mix them with dough and spread it on the surface of an enclosed water area. Fish of different sizes and types will be affected by the poison and float to the surface of the water killed or temporarily anaesthetized. Most poisons affect the gills of the fish and the flesh is generally safe to eat, although when pesticides are used residues may accumulate in the fish flesh to toxic levels. The number and size of the fish depend on the concentration of the chemical present in the plant. The catch from this method of fishing usually fetch higher prices because the flesh is undamaged and very difficult for the non-expert people to tell whether the fish had been poisoned or not. Marshland fish caught with chemicals are easily recognised by their reddened eyes and swollen abdomens. Sometimes fishermen agitate the mud at the bottom of the marsh to liberate hydrogen sulphide gas, which suffocates fish and makes it easy to catch them by hand or by encircling them with net or a piece of cloth.
B- Fishing gear and methods in the marine territory of the Lower Mesopotamian Plain
The southern Mesopotamian plain borders a coastal zone of the Arabian Gulf of about 105 km extent. This zone consists mainly of intertidal mudflats backed by bare silt flats, often with an intervening narrow strip of date gardens. The most extensive mudflats occur in a huge tidal basin, Khor al-Zubair, near the border with Kuwait, and along the north shore of Khor Abdullah west of the region of Fao city at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab River.
The native people of the southern part of the lower Mesopotamian plain follow different types of fishing methods from those living near the inland water bodies. These differences are due to the nature of the habitats and fish species composition of this part of Mesopotamia.
Estuarine and marine fishing environments occur near Fao city, where fishermen have the choice to fish in both habitats. For higher commercial catches, fishermen mainly operate in the deeper marine water around Fao city rather than at the estuary of the Shatt al-Arab River. They use the same fishing gear and methods as other Arabian Gulf States fishermen, which are as follows:
Long lines (Figure 11): The gear consists of a length of line, wire or rope to which baited hooks are attached via shorter lengths of line. Long lines are highly selective as a result of hook size, and unwanted catches of invertebrates are rare. Long lining is one of the oldest fishing methods in the northwest region of the Arabian Gulf, and both professional and amateur fishermen practice it. Professional fishermen usually use a large wooden boat locally known as a “Hadak” (an Arabic word describing the action of sitting waiting for the fish to be caught on the line). Different types of artificial threads and vast numbers of lures were used in this method, depending on the type and size of the target fish species. The maximum number of lines for each boat is usually ten. For the bottom species of fish, fishermen usually used longer line connected with multiple hooks and provided with large sinkers to keep it in place near the bottom. The fishing operations take place in both morning and afternoon, and the fishing trip lasts for 2-4 days depending on the distance to the nearest port and the amount of ice available on board to keep the catch fresh. This method usually targets sharks, cobia, Rachycentron canadum, barracuda, Sphyraena spp., croakers, Otolithes spp., and the emperor fish (Lethrinus spp.).

  1. Drift net: This method is similar to the method of gill net in the mechanism of catching fish. Small wooden boats called “Boam” or “Dhow” (Arabic for owl) reaching 20 meters in length were made especially for this type of fishing. The length of the net reaches 60 meters and width varies between 4 and 6 meters. Date palm barks are usually used as floating material fixed to the upper line while stones are used as sinkers to keep the net spread open in the water. The fishing boat usually spends 2-3 hours in each fishing area. Eight fishermen are involved in lifting the net and the catch from the water: three to pull the upper line, three to pull the lower line, and two to collect the catch entangled by the net and to prepare the net for the next throw.

The species targeted by this method are the Indian shad, Tenualosa ilisha, silver pomfret, Pampus argenteus, and dorab wolf-herring, Chirocentrus dorab.

3-Traps: As in inland water bodies, traps are used in the marine territorial area bordering southern Mesopotamia, and are considered among the most common trap fishing methods in the Arabian Gulf area. Four main types of traps are in use in the area. Trap fishing gears are either movable or fixed. The movable traps include the Gargoor trap, whereas the movable traps include the valve room trap, Milan trap, and Hadra trap.

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