The labre fish, also known as crénilabre paon, is a species native to the Mediterranean, usually found among rocks and seaweed at a maximum of 20-25 meters below the surface. Males reach a length of 40 cm, and females are usually 25 cm long. Males are yellow-green with three stripes and blue and red colorings, while females are gray-brown with three dark brown stripes. Labre is an important element of the diet of the local population. It is used in different kind of dishes such as bouillabaisse or fish couscous. Labre is one of the targets of the charfia fishery in Tunisia. It is a traditional way to capture fish that has been used in the area for years.
The charfia, which literally translates as ‘House of Death,’ is a traditional, sustainable Tunisian fishing method that catches fish alive. It is a fixed fishing system that uses palm leaves in an arrow-shaped line. Fish caught in this trap are harvested selectively and appropriately following a legacy of knowledge handed down from generation to generation. The charfia uses palm tree leaves to build a kind of labyrinth into which the fish swim and, when the tide falls, are trapped alive in a special chamber, from where they are collected by the fishermen. This method is a very slow method that allows fishermen to select the fish for harvest. Charfia is specific to the Kerkennah islands, though it is also occasionally used in the surrounding areas of Chebba and Dejerba. It belongs to the local culture and is the expression of a deep knowledge of the environment. Fishermen work with the tide to get the fishes without destroying their natural environment and killing them unnecessarily.
A local legend tells that when the princess Aziza Othmana came to the Kerkannah she was horrified by the misery of the population and asked the Bey (a prefect of the Ottoman Empire) to do something about it. She thought that each inhabitant could get a “plot of sea” to exploit. The sea has always been the first source of living for Kerkennah’s population. The prefect accepted and divided the sea into different parts to give out to the local population. Today, unfortunately, this ancient fishing technique faces several threats, such as the collapse of fishery resources, pressure from the fishing industry, a shortage of palm tree leaves, the abandoning of this method by the younger generation for easier techniques, and the increasing monopolization of ownership of sea plots. In order to save the Kerkennah Islands and its fishing community, measures and initiatives have been adopted to protect the marine biodiversity and to support ancestral sustainable fisheries such as the charfia, for example, with the creation of a certified label, marked ‘Fish from Charfia’ to promote and preserve this traditional fishery.
Labre caught using this method are consumed directly by the fishermen and their families, and also sold locally, depending on the quantity fished. The Kerkennah marine ecosystems have always been very rich. The shallow waters surrounding the islands are home to vast beds of sea grass, which serve as essential nurseries for fish. Once a fertile ground providing the main source of work for the island’s 13,000 people, it’s now a sea empty of marine life. Many fish like labre are at risk of disappearing in this area because of many reasons. First of all the environmental pressure is very high. More and more fishermen from the area use motorized fishing boat instead of charfia, and harmful fishing practices like bottom trawling that destroy the environment. Overfishing through methods besides charfia is harming the fishes’ reproductive cycle, and smaller fish like labre are at risk of extinction if their population drops too quickly.
Image: © Feki Morsi