FAO helps Tunisia make use of blue crabs

From invasive species to privileged export

29 October, 17:22

    TUNIS - The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has helped transform a catastrophe into an opportunity for Tunisian fishermen in the Gulf of Gabès. With FAO support, they have been able to turn an invasive species - the blue crab - into a lucrative business.

    Blue crab exports from Tunisia, FAO reports, increased significantly in May 2021 to 2,090.9 tons, worth some 7.2 million dollars - compared with the 796.1 tons worth 3.1 million dollars in 2020. The export development was due to efforts by the Tunisian authorities with FAO support to train fishermen as part of the "Strengthening Governance and Development of Fisheries in Tunisia" and then to develop a complete value chain for this niche market.

    An invasive species introduced into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, the blue crab threatened the traditional fishing techniques used along the Tunisian coast, damaging in particular the nets and traps used in Charfia (a traditional, fixed fishery system that blocks the path of fish and leads them to traps). With their sharp shells and claws, blue crabs ruin these fishing nets and feed on other fish species also caught in the nets or traps, FAO noted in a statement.

    "Blue crabs were first found off the Tunisian coast in 1993. By 2014, they began proliferating massively, causing significant damage to the coastal artisanal fishing sector, especially in the Gulf of Gabès in southeast Tunisia, where, during the high season, the blue crab represented more than 70 percent of the catch off this Mediterranean gulf," the statement added.

    "These predatory crabs compete with indigenous species for space and food. They feed on all other species of fish, and its only natural predator, the octopus, is not enough to limit its spread. By disturbing the natural ecosystems, the blue crab has also negatively affected the yields of Tunisian women clam collectors, who were supported by FAO to improve their household incomes," it said.

    "At the same time, this blue crab is the fifth most popular crab in the world market. It is especially sought out in the Asian, United States and Australian markets where it is featured on the menus of many restaurants," it continued.

    "Seeing the potential of turning this foe into a friend, FAO and the Tunisian government launched training sessions for the fishers in this region. Through the "Strengthening Governance and Development of Fisheries in Tunisia" project, FAO trained 90 fishers in Djerba, Gabès and Kerkennah", who "received information sessions on the benefits of the blue crab and 1 500 multipurpose traps to allow them to catch the crab more easily.

    During FAO's practical, hands-on training sessions, the fishers were able to compare the effectiveness of these large, mesh net traps against the traditional cylindrical crab pots." The statement went on to say that: "Beyond the advancement of fishing techniques in Tunisia, FAO has assisted the government in developing a complete value chain within this niche market.

    Good governance of fishing, that allows fishers to catch crabs of good quality while respecting the environment, has facilitated the marketing of the blue crab locally and internationally. The first blue crab processing and marketing plant for the Asian market, created by the government in 2019 in the Kerkennah islands, triggered a mini economic boom in the area with 50 new jobs for plant technicians." Valerio Crespi, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Officer explained in the statement that: "This successful plant not only allowed fishers to diversify their sources of income, it also added value to an invasive species." "Private sector investments in blue crab processing plants have gone from simple packaging and freezing raw crabs to preparing cooked products in order to expand to markets in Asia, Italy, Spain and the Americas. Some food manufacturing plants in Zarzis are considering including cooked crab as one of their products to enter other markets. In fact, even in Tunisia where crab has never been a traditional dish or ingredient in cooking, this product is starting to appear on local menus due to its new availability in markets," it noted.

    "Though the consumption of fisheries' products decreased during the pandemic period, fishers in the Gulf of Gabès are grateful that FAO assisted in turning an invasive species into a lucrative business and diversifying their income sources and economic opportunities," FAO said.

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