By Marine Olivesi
In the shade of a palm tree, five fishermen sit killing time in the Tunisian village of Zarzis. On a regular day, they'd be sailing right now. Each would bring home about $15 worth of fish and two pounds of fresh calamari for a spaghetti dinner.
Instead, they're arguing over what happened to Mabrouka – their white boat with a sky blue stripe.
"Why did you leave Mabrouka in the water?" Farhat asked his cousin and the boat's owner, Mohammed.
"Where else could I have put the boat – in my bedroom?" Mohammed responded.
Mohammed swears he kept a close eye on Mabrouka – just not close enough, it turned out.
"I stayed until midnight, guarding the boat," Mohammed said. "Then at 3 a.m., I came back to check on it and all I found were fishing nets floating around, but no boat." He added that many boats have been stolen that way.
For smugglers in Zarzis, boats like Mabrouka are a disposable, yet essential, commodity. In the three months since the revolution in Tunisia, about 25,000 Tunisians have sailed illegally to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Authorities there confiscate the boats once the migrants arrive.
Zarzis has become ground zero in the exodus. About 5,000 people from Zarzis alone have left for Lampedusa, many of them in a local fishing boat.
Mohammed's boat was worth about $13,000. He said he was offered more than twice that amount for it, but he refused to sell. The boat belonged to his father, and his grandfather before him. Mohammed said Mabrouka fed his family for two decades. He couldn't possibly sell it.
Now, he said he should have.
Mohammed's wife and two kids have moved back with his in-laws because money is tight without the income from the fishing boat. Mohammed is also missing out on the most lucrative period for fishing in Zarzis; the shrimp season, which just got under way.
Half the town's fleet
It's unclear how many other fishermen have been hurt by the spike in boat trafficking. The regional marine authority reported that about 30 boats from Zarzis are now in Italy, but fishermen here say that's a gross understatement. Some estimate that up to 200 boats — more than half of the town's fleet – have been sold or stolen in the past few months.
Mario owns a car rental company, but he said that lately, the boat business is an easier way to make money.
"Right now, you can buy a boat without leaving a single record of the transaction," Mario said. "You give the fisherman money, he gives you his boat. The buyer doesn't need any document. The boat's here for a one-way ride, and to make some money out of it."
Mario admits that he's made a lot of money doing this. It's illegal here to buy boats without a fishing license, but Mario said in today's Tunisia, there are laws, but no law enforcement.
Bouzid Slah, with the regional marine authority's fishing division, doesn't dispute that. He said they've identified about 20 boat traffickers in Zarzis alone, but no one's going after them.
"Right now, everybody is skirting the law in one way or another. We're keeping tabs, but there's nothing else we can do for now," Slah said.
He added that it's hard to know how boat trafficking will affect the fishing economy here in the long run. For now, though, it's a boon for those who still have their boats. They're getting a much higher price for shrimp this year.
Beyond the price of fish, though, some say the town's identity may take a big hit.
Another fisherman, 23-year old Karim, said fishing here is still a craft, and a lifestyle passed down from father to son.
Karim points to his small blue-and-red boat pitching and tossing on the waves about 100 feet away. It's too windy to go out today, yet he can count on one hand the boats still moored near his own.
Karim said the recent exodus isn't just about boats. Many young fishermen have gone, too. About 20 of his friends are now on the other side of the Mediterranean.
He says his neighborhood used to be full of people to hang out with. "We used to go to the café and chill together in the evening," Karim said. "Now there are only four of us left."
Karim said that's why he hasn't sold his small wooden boat. With most of his fishing buddies gone, his family and his boat are all he's got now.