Fishing to save lives
In northern Mozambique, fishing is life. It’s the primary source of protein for villagers, and the livelihood behind artisanal fishermen and the thousands employed in fisheries markets.
Like many other fisheries around the world, however, Mozambique’s oceans are being overexploited and illegally looted, resulting in fragile ecological systems that are incapable of producing more fish and are bordering on collapse.
For citizens in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, overwhelmingly sustained by fisheries, the situation has become dire.
International scientists have predicted that current global rates of overfishing, pollution, habitat loss and climate change will see the world’s oceans empty of fish by 2048.
In Cabo Delgado it may come earlier, said local representative of the Global Fish Alliance Isabel Ferreira.
“The problem of overexploited natural fisheries throughout Cabo Delgado province is exacerbated by illegal marine-stripping by citizens from neighbouring countries, such as Tanzania,” Ferreira said.
“Fishers also destroy the corals in their efforts to find the lairs of octopuses.”
In the port city of Pemba, which has the third-largest bay in the world, an increasing number of fishermen return from the sea empty-handed.
In five to 15 years, predict specialists, the artisanal tradition of these fisherman may no longer exist because of the damage to the ecosystems.
“For us today, life is not easy because we stay in the sea for hours and sometimes we come back with nothing, or just small fish. Some people are even using mosquito nets to catch the smallest fish,” said one fisherman.
Fish production in Pemba totalled 8 600 tonnes in 2013. This was enough to supply just 9kg of fish to each inhabitant, below the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of 11kg per person.
“The business of sustainable fishing is to support the communities, and to organise and improve fishing practices,” said Ferreira.
She cited the practice of using mosquito nets, which catch tiny fish and prevent them from maturing and reproducing.
“These fish,” she said, “will disappear unless ecological knowledge and appropriate techniques are passed on.”
Pemba bay is characterised by corals and nurseries where fish deposit eggs and multiply. Mosquito nets destroy the eggs and damage the corals.
Other problems resulting in devastated ecosystems, not just in Pemba, but throughout Cabo Delgado, include disappearing sea turtles, shark poaching for the fins, depletion of shellfish and pollution from large ships.
Marine biologist Isabel Marques da Silva said the northern coast of Mozambique still had some of the best-preserved coral reefs in the Indian Ocean.
“These corals are less exposed to the impacts of climate change due to the configuration of the islands, which have great depths between them, enabling more water to move between the islands and cover the corals.”
Da Silva is working on a model, previously implemented in Madagascar, where for periods of one or two months people are not allowed to fish in certain areas, giving those particular fisheries time to recover. She is also focusing on women who, as the main householders, catch octopus to feed their families.
They are encouraged to catch octopuses weighing more than 2kg instead of small ones.
“This management of their own catch will bring more benefits for these women in the long run,” said Da Silva. “We can’t force them to change, it must come from them. Once they can see it is more sustainable, they can choose for themselves.”
Perhaps a bigger threat to the coral reefs are the pipelines and drilling for natural gas along the coastline.
South Africa’s Sasol and Italian company ENI are among the companies eyeing the commercial development of more than 65-trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas offshore of northern Mozambique.
Several non-governmental organisations are dealing with these issues through a fishery management project under the umbrella of the Global Initiative for Fisheries Management. It aims to help create sustainable fisheries for ecological conservation as well as community needs in Cabo Delgado.
“Our greatest tool is communication,” said Robert Martin from the US-based Centre for Environment, Energy and Economic Development.
“It’s a global initiative and we have similar projects in Honduras and Cambodia.”
Cabo Delgado’s former provincial director of fisheries, Mário António Carvalho, said one of the ways to save the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen would be to enable them to fish in the open sea.
“In Cabo Delgado the artisanal fishermen are confined to fishing within three miles of their territory,” said Carvalho. “Certain fish types are in constant motion and this means that the local fishermen lose out if they do not catch them here. The government’s strategy is to try to keep these resources accessible during the period when they are in our waters.”
Illegal fishing is a constant in the area, according to João Manuel from the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature in Cabo Delgado.
“We have found some Tanzanian vessels engaged in illegal fishing, even within the Quirimba National Park,” he said. “This poaching normally occurs in the most remote areas, away from police scrutiny.”
Illegal techniques used by the poachers include sharing a diving gas bottle among a group diving at the same time, said Da Silva. “They bring generators and compressors to fill the air in their bottles. In Mozambique these are forbidden techniques.
“Groups of six or seven illegal divers aggressively strip the oceans and they are unafraid of the villagers, the chief and even the police,” she said.
A Tanzanian ship recently seized by WWF inside the Quirimbas marine protected area was laden with sharks, turtles, stingrays and more than 50 litres of shark oil. It had been trawling the corals and the sea grass along the bottom of the ocean during low tide using mosquito nets.
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