Yemen's fishermen left high and dry by conflict, extreme weather

A fisherman walks on a boat docked at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

A fisherman walks on a boat docked at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

What’s the context?

Climate change and conflict are forcing Yemen's fishermen to abandon their trade or seek out riskier routes off East Africa

  • Fear of warships in Red Sea grounds Yemeni fishermen
  • Climate change impacts linked to depleted catches
  • Fishermen forced to take more dangerous routes

BEIRUT - For Yemeni fisherman Salem Atek, 2024 has been a perfect storm: driven out of the rich waters of the Red Sea by conflict, he has been left foraging for meagre catches closer to shore all while braving extreme weather caused by climate change.

In March, warships started shooting near Atek's boat as he fished in the Red Sea, now a place of peril due to attacks by Yemen's Houthi group on international shipping, who say they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza war.

Traumatised by his narrow escape, Atek decided to sit out the rest of the tuna season.

But his troubles were not over - unseasonably high tides then swept into a hut where he stored his fishing equipment near his home in al-Buraiqeh, near Aden, damaging some of his gear.

"For the first time in my life the water got into it at this time of the year," he said. "Our seasons are mixed up, like farmers, we fishermen have our calculations ... but now our calculations are not working."

The twin calamities of conflict and climate change have fused in Yemen, fuelling a humanitarian crisis that has left more than half of its 33 million people relying on outside aid while about 4.5 million have been forced to flee their homes.

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The double whammy has hit the fishing community particularly hard. Not only has a civil war on land destroyed boats, ports and processing sites, the new conflict at sea is costing lives and money as fishermen are driven out of their usual grounds.

"We are being forced into debt," Atek told Context by phone, saying he could only catch cheaper, smaller fish by the coast while he could snare more expensive fish, such as tuna, further out to sea.   

A civil war has raged in Yemen since the Iranian-backed Houthis ousted the government from the capital Sanaa in late 2014. A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in 2015, aiming to restore the government.

Fishermen operating from Yemen's northern coastline have been experiencing disruption for some time and had already been forced to change their routes due to the precarious security situation following the years-long civil war.

Now, fishermen further south are also being affected due to the fallout from the Gaza war in the Red Sea, which led the United States and Britain to send warships to the area and launch strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen.

In March, the Houthi-run fisheries ministry said at least two fishermen were killed in strikes by the U.S. and British-led coalition off the Red Sea port of Mocha in southwestern Yemen.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) did not respond to a request for comment on the incident.

But even fishermen who have decided to forgo the deep-sea hauls and stay closer to the coast do not feel safe. When it is not warships and planes making them anxious, they must contend with unpredictable water currents and winds which they blame on climate change.

"The situation is hard and fishing has gone down," Aden-based fishermen Nasser Hadji said. "We try to take our precautions. We depend on God."

Boys play in a dried up dam in Khawlan, Yemen, August 31, 2023. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Boys play in a dried up dam in Khawlan, Yemen, August 31, 2023. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Boys play in a dried up dam in Khawlan, Yemen, August 31, 2023. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Rising seas, more storms

Before the civil war erupted, Yemen was a major fish producer, with more than 350 species of fish and other marine life found in the waters off its 2,520 km-long (1,570-mile) coast, including tuna, sardines, mackerel and lobster.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the industry employed more than 500,000 people before the war and fish was the second-biggest export behind oil and natural gas.

But war has brought the whole country to its knees and now up to 60% of the population are expected to be facing acute food insecurity in 2024, mainly because of high food and fuel prices, extreme weather, including a severe drought, and conflict.

Yemen is also among the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change, and one of the least prepared to mitigate or adapt to its effects.

The Yemen Family Care Association (YFCA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), said in a report last year that sea levels along the coast were expected to rise by 0.3-0.54 metres (0.98-1.77 feet) by 2100.

It also noted that Yemen's exposure to cyclones has increased, with the country enduring six major tropical storms since 2015. Thousands of people were displaced and fishing boats and equipment were also destroyed in these events.

Last October, cyclone Tej affected around 18,000 households in the southeast, with major damage to infrastructure including health facilities, roads, and telecommunications lines.

Fisherman steps into a boat at the fishing port of Hodeidah, Yemen April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

Fisherman steps into a boat at the fishing port of Hodeidah, Yemen April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

Fisherman steps into a boat at the fishing port of Hodeidah, Yemen April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

Tropical storms and rising sea temperatures can both lead to the depletion of fish stocks, while extreme weather makes fishing more perilous.

Musaed Aklan, a researcher at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, said these factors were driving fishermen to switch out of the trade.

"Their source of livelihood is under threat," he said. "The war increased the intensity of the problems."

Some fishermen have opted to cast their nets further afield with some venturing into fishing grounds along the East African coast, but these waters can be treacherous and some fishermen have been captured by pirates or detained by foreign authorities.

Earlier this month, 17 fishermen were returned to Yemen after spending weeks in an Eritrean prison in poor conditions, the Houthi-run Saba News reported.   

Salma Nasser Abdan, head of the Sahel Association aid group, said the Red Sea unrest had driven Yemeni fishermen from Aden and other southern areas into the riskier routes for the first time.

At the same time, the dangers have increased as pirates resume their activities in the waters off Somalia.   

"They are exposed to piracy risks in the waters of Somalia," Abdan said. "They are being subject to dangers including killings ... and having their fishing equipment taken from them."

(Reporting by Nazih Osseiran; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile.)


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  • Climate and health
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