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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mkwiro's Fishermen Raise Concerns Over Local Resource Exploitation

At the end of last week I was asked by the Mkwiro community to sit in on a ‘baraza’, or village meeting, where the fishermen expressed their concerns about the commercial exploitation of their local marine resources by people from outside of the community. They estimate that 98% of the men in the community depend on fishing as a primary livelihood, all carried out using traditional methods such as traps and long lines from dug-out canoes. In addition, harvesting of octopus and collection of cowrie shells are two principal sources of additional household income, carried out by the women. With a long tradition and dependence on fishing, it is perhaps not surprising that the community has a keen sense of sustainability when it comes to their most important natural resource.

However they perceive their catches to be in decline; when I asked if they could quantify this, they pointed out that 5 years ago the community as a whole would harvest 90 - 150 kg of octopus per day. Today it is closer to 35 kg. Or as one elder put it “fish traps used to bring a daily income, now it is a pleasant surprise if we catch anything at all… they are more of a hobby than an income”.

The community has no hesitation in identifying the cause of their declining catches. Spear-gun fishing was made an illegal practice in Kenya and yet the community see around 40 men armed with spear-guns and increasingly with scuba gear, on a daily basis. To make matters worse they report that illegal spear-gun fishing is regularly seen within the Mpunguti Marine Reserve itself, which should be protected against all but non-commercial artisanal fishing practices. The local fishermen have even found fish caught in their traps to have been wounded by spear-guns, the people from outside of their community targeting the fish that are already within their traps.

They are also convinced that the constant presence of spear-gun fishermen under the water interferes with their traditional methods, scaring away the fish from their nets, traps and hooks.

Equally alarming is the prevalence of commercial aquarium fisheries in the area, the waters around Shimoni and Wasini island now being targeted for the ornamental fish that are exported for the pet trade, now that stocks have been exhausted elsewhere along the coast. Again, the perpetrators are from outside of the local communities, exploiting natural resources without bringing any benefit to the communities that are dependent on a healthy marine environment. The alarming fact in all of this is that there are apparently no legal quotas for aquarium fisheries and hence no management to regulate the activity. Corals can even be seen carried off in Shimoni, which the community understand to be illegal.

The community were keen to air their grievances in order to get guidance on how they can address these issues that are critical to their livelihoods. They perceive local authorities to have been unresponsive in the past to the same complaints that they have raised and have witnessed no enforcement of the law. They even have a deep mistrust of their local Beach Management Unit (BMU), a local authority that is intended to empower local community members and other marine-resource stakeholders to enact locally relevant management and regulation of natural resource use. The community suspect a conflict of interest has meant that the BMU is reluctant to represent their concerns, given that the authority funds itself by a form of taxation on all fish traded through Shimoni, including those caught by spear-guns.

Fortunately, this time around the community is being listened to at least. The Kenya Wildlife Service Deputy Warden at Shimoni travelled over to Mkwiro to hear the fishermen’s views first hand and wants to work in partnership with the community to enforce the regulations governing fishing activities within the marine reserve. A meeting on Friday will give the community the same opportunity to put their case to the Fisheries Department.

For our part, I hope that we can support the community through capacity building and raising awareness, to empower them to enact community-based management of their resources and ultimately conservation of their marine environment. After all, if the fishermen’s catches are declining it raises concerns over the future of other wildlife that depend on fish… including the dolphins, a vital natural resource themselves, earning tourism revenue in the local area.