Time seems to stand still on the banks of Kerkennah. It’s 8 o ‘clock. The sun burns the peaceful waves. Zuhir and his two brothers come back from fishing. Everyone on their boat is busy removing small crabs from their net one by one. It is the end of the blue crab season on the archipelago.
“Fishing is a lot of suffering”, lance, drawn features, Zuhir. “And the sea is pretty empty this year. Fortunately, there are a few crabs, even if he too has decreased », he laments.
An invasive species
Trawlers illegally approaching shores, plastic and global warming have severely affected fishery resources in this corner of the Mediterranean. So the arrival in 2014 of the blue crab, an invasive species that the islanders nickname “Daesh”, initially frightened.
“He ate all the other fish in the trap, remembers Zuhir floating in his boat. But little by little, we managed to apprehend him. And people bought it. “ The price of a crate of about fifteen kilos has increased. That morning, Zuhir sells it to an intermediary for 35 dinars (10 €).
Exports on the rise
The plague has become a blessing. The blue crab is at the origin of a mini-economic boom on the island of 15,000 inhabitants, according to a report published in October by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Blue crab exports increased sharply in May 2021 to reach over 2,000 tonnes compared to just under 800 in 2020.
The catch of the day is sent directly to the two companies based in Kerkennah, including that of Mustapha Gharsallah. This child of the island started in 2019 in the exploitation of the blue crab. First in Sfax, the town opposite, then in Kerkennah where he moved back in 2020 to found Mas Fish, in the midst of a pandemic.
Jobs at stake
That morning, the smiling forty-something inspects the first crates. His company has around 40 employees. “But we are still looking to recruit”, he said. In a country where the unemployment rate is over 17%, the sector is creating jobs in Kerkennah, Gabès and Zarzis.
“And we bring foreign currency back to the country: the blue crab is the seafood which brought in the most foreign currency in the country last year”, explains this boss, before showing the whole chain.
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At the beginning, Mustapha Gharsallah only exported to Thailand and South Korea. Four years later, his crab travels to the four corners of the world. “New markets have emerged: Asia, the United States … everyone is asking for it, even France now”, he rejoices. Next step: the prepared products. “Crab claws are very good”, he emphasizes.
The size of crabs decreases
Mustapha Gharsallah and his two brothers and partners plan to expand the premises and build another one close to the port of the island, further north. He will join another factory, that of Habib Zrida, which sees no competition. “Anyone who opens a project here is a child of the island who loves his island”, assures this Kerkennien.
In July 2019, Habib Zrida opened the archipelago’s first blue crab factory: the Fishing Ocean. After difficulties during the pandemic, its exports have resumed. But he has observed changes lately: the caliber of crabs has decreased. It implicates the trawlers. Despite the difficulties, he too seeks to recruit and diversify, with prepared dishes.
The crab, which probably came from America, has become part of local recipes. Mohamed Ezzedine is the organizer of a traditional fishing festival, the charfiya. In 2018, he brought back to the island experts who know how to fish and cook blue crab. “Now, the fishermen cook it: with pasta, grilled or sautéed”, he assures. Enough to envision a bright future for the blue crab. On the stalls of the country as elsewhere in the world.