Kerkennah, the islands where inhabitants own parts of the sea
Kerkennah - Twenty kilometres off the coast of the Tunisian town of Sfax is the only place on Earth where ordinary people can own parts of the sea: the islands of Kerkennah.
The sea under the small islands is owned mostly by fishermen, due to their fishing methods that require them to set traps in designated parts of the water.
Kerkennah — or Cercina, as it was called by the Phoenicians — is steeped in history and contains traces of various civilisations. An hour away by ferry from Sfax, Kerkennah includes five islands first settled in Phoenician times. During the Roman empire, the Kerkennah islands served as a location to watch over the sea and became known as the place Sempronius Gracchus, a lover of Julia, the daughter of Emperor Augustus, was exiled to.
The islands of Kerkennah are rich with Roman ruins, most notably the towers and the old port on the eastern side of the islands. Still intact, the towers are open for visitors to explore. In addition to history and culture, visitors can enjoy walks on the beach and the sea view from restaurants and hotels in the tourist zone of Sidi Fredj.
In more modern times, the islands played an important role during the country’s struggle against colonialism. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, sought shelter on the islands when he was wanted by French colonial officials. Kerkennah also was the home of labour union leaders such as Farhat Hached, who campaigned against French rule during the 20th century.
Kerkennah boasts the Museum of the Insular Patrimony of Abbasia, which showcases the history and traditions of the islands. Opened in 2006, the museum also functions as a research centre for Mediterranean studies.
“The museum focuses on the ethnographic aspect of the daily life of the inhabitants of the islands [during] the different phases of its history from ancient to modern,” said Abdelhamid Fehri, university researcher of history and founder of the museum.
Built in the style of a traditional house, the museum takes visitors from one room to another, each exploring a different aspect of island life. Visitors see fishing nets that were made by family members and stored in their homes.
Other parts of the museum are dedicated to daily life and wedding traditions, including the signature drums of the islands: Drummers and trumpet players perform in front of acrobatic dancers while singing and chanting traditional songs of the islands.
“Everything is built using the original materials of the locals. We tried to create a small microcosm of island life,” said Fehri.
Fehri said ownership of the sea dates to the 15th and 16th centuries. Documents from that time report that locals complained to the Bey of Tunis about mainlanders trying to steal their sea. The bey issued a decree allowing Kerkennah islanders to own land under the sea.
“Starting at that point, locals became able to register the parts of the sea where they set their fishing traps as owned by them,” Fehri said. “The documents are known as honorary ownership contracts.”
The fishermen in Kerkennah use unique fishing technique called charfia, consisting of a net sown by hand in a circular shape. Charfia nets are displayed in the museum.
“For a good captain or fisherman, the fish has to be caught alive, which is why the fishermen use traps. Using a fishing net, they locate the right spots for the high tides. Where there is a circle, a basin is created. The fish enters and then it is trapped there until the trap is pulled up by the fisherman,” Fehri explained. “The second method is to install fishing nets in the water, make noise in the water to catch the jumping fish in the nets. The point is to keep the fish alive until taken out of the water.”
The islands also are known for octopus fishing and residents organise an annual octopus festival in the spring. The festival includes folk shows and cooking competitions for the best octopus dish.
“Kerkennah is a virgin land for those seeking peace and soothing quiet. People who like scenery that is untouched by modernity will enjoy their time here,” Fehri said. “Kerkennah is an oasis covering 140 square kilometres with over 60% oasis, a unique case in the Mediterranean. The fish, the grapes and the figs are all part of the wealth that is to be discovered.”