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Biblical fishermen would now be fined

Were Jesus to return and fish the Sea of Galilee today he might tell a parable, not of prolific catches and the sated crowds of biblical times but of empty nets and a hefty fine.

Israel's parliament is poised to impose a two-year ban on fishing for the famed St Peter's fish -- a type of tilapia indigenous to the Sea of Galilee in the north of the country.

For thousands of years fishermen here have been pulling in the tasty white fish, grilled as a speciality in the restaurants of Tiberias and the villages dotted around the shores of the lake.

Stocks have dropped drastically in the past decade because of environmental and human factors. Annual catches of the St Peter's fish, which takes its name from the New Testament story in which Jesus's disciple, Peter, netted a fish with a gold coin in its mouth -- and paid his taxes with it -- have dropped from 300 tonnes to only eight.

The Government's decision to ban fishing has angered fishermen and communities that live off the trade. They blame the decline on political mismanagement and a lack of enforcement of existing laws, and fear that a ban could harm the region's lucrative tourist business, which attracts thousands of Christians from around the world.

"Nothing happened that we have to close the fishing," said Menachem Lev, who has been fishing the lake for 31 years from the kibbutz of Ein Gev on the lake's eastern shore.

"People come here to see fishermen working like Jesus and eat the fish. All the world will criticise the Government for closing the lake."

One of the problems originated in the Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein set fire to Kuwait's oil wells before being driven out by a US-led offensive. The resulting cloud of smoke diverted migration routes of up to 10,000 hungry cormorants, which now fly up the African Rift Valley to the Sea of Galilee and guzzle its fish.

Then there is the problem of illegal fishing, mostly by unlicensed operators working out of the town of Tiberias across the lake. The unregulated fishermen use nets with small eyes, catching young fish before they can spawn.

The fishermen accuse the Government of seeking an easy solution. "They'll close it for two years and what will happen? The same problems will come back," Mr Lev said.