Time to take stock and create order in marine industry
What you need to know:
- From the mid 2000s, more fishermen joined the business, leading to over fishing.
- The decline in the annual catch from 170 tonnes in 2003 to 107 tonnes in 2013 has raised concern among scientists and sociologists regarding the status of this resource and the economic viability of other fish.
- Mr Michael Olendo, a marine project officer at WWF, says that to make lobster fishing viable and sustainable, they ensure that the fishermen are trained.
The golden sunset’s rays filter through the clouds, creating a magnificent view of Kizingitini, an important fishing bay on Lamu Island at the Kenyan coast.
Its shoreline is lined by small, engine-powered dhows and a few dug-out canoes.
In the distance is a group of boats heading back to the shore. Hopefully, they each made a decent catch.
This sandy island is inhabited predominantly by the Bajun, who rely on subsistence and semi-commercial (artisanal) fishing to earn a living.
However, while the traditional fishing boats have remained largely the same for countless generations, fishing in Lamu has undergone major changes.
In the early 2000s, Kizingitini, Kiunga and Kiwayu Islands, the key fishing villages, were booming lobster fishing sites.
The fishermen would return from the ocean with huge catches, which also translated to good income.
However, from the mid 2000s, more fishermen joined the business, leading to over fishing. Besides, fishing malpractices crept in, leading to a drastic reduction in lobster stocks.
In fact, the decline in the annual catch from 170 tonnes in 2003 to 107 tonnes in 2013 has raised concern among scientists and sociologists regarding the status of this resource and the economic viability of other fish.
The local fishermen say lobster catches have been declining at the rate of 8 kilos per decade.
From a maximum 28 kilos per trip by each fisherman 30 years ago, the catch has declined to less than 2.5 kilos per trip, a fisheries expert said.
At the same time the number of fishermen in the three fishing villages have more than tripled, leading to greater pressure on the already dwindling stock.
Scientists fear that if no action is taken to stem the trend, lobsters could soon become extinct.
Mohammed Musa is a lobster fisherman in Kizingitini with more than 25 years experience.
He says returning to the shore with an empty net after a day’s work is a reality he is still trying to come to terms with.
In a bad week the fishermen can return to the shore empty-handed for two successive days, including during the peak season that runs from October to April. But the poor catches worsen during off-peak periods, says Musa.
“Athari inatokana na uvuvi wa kamba wadogo,” (Fishing of immature lobsters is the major cause of the decline in stock) Musa told DN2.
The fishermen do not consider whether lobsters are too young or berried (females carrying eggs), he adds.
To get the lobsters, Bwana Athman, a regular lobster fisherman in Lamu, explains that they use dead octopus (pweza) to scare the lobsters (kamba) out of crevices into a scoop net.
“Once the lobsters are in the nets (kimia), they are put in bag-like holding nets (shambi) in the water that are tied to the boat,” Athman adds.
This keeps the catch alive and fresh from the fishing grounds to the collection cages on the shore.
The lobsters are weighed on the shore before being placed in big, collection cages that are submerged, he explains, adding that the demand for the crustaceans is very high.
Lobsters are benthic dwellers (they live near the sea bed) found in oceans, brackish environments and fresh water.
They live singly in crevices on rocky surfaces, sandy or muddy areas from the shoreline to beyond the edge of the continental shelf since they thrive best in shallow water.
Lamu contributes nearly 60 per cent of the annual national lobster landings, according to the State Department of Fisheries.
Even though other species of fish such as the rabbitfish, sweet lips, parrotfish, sturgeon and snappers are found in the area, most fishermen prefer to catch lobsters because they are more profitable.
Athman says grade two lobsters sell at Sh2,000 per kilo, while grade one sells go for between Sh5,000 and Sh6,000 per kilo.
However, today, the fishermen can barely manage 2 kilos of lobster instead of 10 kilos per day as a result of the dwindling population of the crustaceans.
Mr Simon Warui, a fisheries economist in the State Department of Fisheries, says that the pressure on fishing at the Kenyan coast has been increasing over the years.
The optimal fishing capacity at the coast is estimated at 4,625 boats, he says, but there are 5,600 boats, which has not only burdened the artisanal fisheries industry, but also reduced the fishermen’s earnings considerably.
There have also been concerns about foreign fishermen, especially from Pemba and Zanzibar, fishing at the Kenyan coast.
However, driving them out would be detrimental to the coastal fishing industry, DN2 learnt.
Local fishermen and fisheries experts who said that Kenyan fishermen on their own cannot maintain the fish market with constant supplies because they do not have the requisite skills for the job, so the foreign fishermen’s expertise comes in handy.
“The local fishermen also use simple boats that cannot go beyond three nautical miles, thus limiting their area of operation,” said Mr Warui, adding that if the fishermen continue using the same equipment, they will become poorer.
Dr George Waweru, a research scientist at Nature Conservancy, says that in addition to overfishing, illegal and destructive fishing gear, as well as the destruction of the crustaceans’ habitat, are detrimental to the artisanal fishing industry.
“Our fisheries, just like many other tropical fisheries around the world, is multispecies and multi-gear — there are more than 13 different types of fishing gear exploiting more than 200 species — in nature, making its management complicated. All these factors threaten lobster fishing in Kenya,” Dr Waweru says.
The current annual value of lobster sales stands at Sh109 million.
Meanwhile, the annual landing of all types of fish at the coast stands at 9,800 tonnes, which is worth Sh1.3bn, according to the State Department of Fisheries, making it among the most valuable resources.
The government, through the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute, the Fisheries Department and other stakeholders such as Pwani University, the University of Eldoret, Nature Conservancy and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), is working with fishing communities at the coast to strengthen the adoption of new, co-management approaches such as establishing beach management units to improve the design of fisheries zoning plans in their areas.
The institutions are also pushing for the adoption of the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) environmental standard for sustainable fishing.
The certification guarantees traceability, without which the country is in a precarious position and could lose important markets such as the European Union, Ms Elizabeth Mueni, assistant director of fisheries at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, says.
She adds that thanks to growing consumer awareness regarding the handling of sea foods, the standards should be addressed, otherwise the sector could end up losing more than Sh200 million from exports and the local market. Small-scale fishermen could lose more than Sh110 million.
“Our research shows that the species are not fully exploited, but rather, are caught before they mature, hence enforcement of MSC certification is necessary,” Ms Mueni says, adding there is also a need to improve data collection to enhance traceability for better markets, and also to enable the fishermen to earn more.
The MSC certification, therefore, serves as a check against vices such as harvesting undersized lobsters — weighing less than 0.25kg and berried ones (females carrying eggs) — leading to sustainable fishing practices, the expert said.
Mr Michael Olendo, a marine project officer at WWF working with lobster fishermen at the coast, says that to make lobster fishing viable and sustainable, they ensure that the fishermen receive Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for lobster fishing, which also comes with training.
He says attaining the MSC certification is crucial as it affirms that those certified practise sustainable fishing. With the certification, the fishermen can gain access to the thriving lobster market across the world through exports.
“We are training them how to weigh lobsters. The underweight ones are released back into the waters since they are caught alive. We are also training them to diversify to harvesting other species such as tuna, which are also lucrative,” he adds.
The fisheries expert said they are engaging in policy reform at the national and county levels to improve conditions for the fishermen.
The locals are also being encouraged to plant mangroves, which provide a vital habitat for marine life and also help combat climate change.
The fishermen are also being organised into beach management units, where they are trained to emulate best practices to ensure that they earn as much as possible through sustainable fishing.
It is also through the beach management units that modern fishing equipment is extended to them.
“The government is currently building a surveillance ship in Bangladesh which will be ready for operation by February next year. The ship is will monitor all fishing activities at the coast,” said Mr Warui, adding that they are also encouraging the fishermen to use stronger boats that can go up to 20 nautical miles in order to decongest the coastline.
Last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a crackdown on illegal fishing, saying the country had little to show for the resources.