Why fishermen in Lamu are only catching small fish

Lamu's Local deep sea fishermen display their various types of catch at the Lamu Island Jetty in lamu County on Saturday, 017th December,2016. This was during the 2016 Lamu County Deep Sea Fishing competition organized by the County Government of Lamu to encourage deep sea fishing that will boost economy of the locals. [PHOTO BY MAARUFU MOHAMED/STANDARD]

Ali Shee is at the helm of a fisherman’s dhow boat that contains about 15 fishermen. He left Pate Island at sunrise and is now back at the fish landing site, with a boat full of fish.

This would be a good thing, except that they are all tiny and will not fetch much. Bigger fish fetch more money and in an ideal scenario, the small fish would be put back into the sea so that they can grow bigger and reproduce, but Ali cannot afford that luxury.

“Years ago, we cast our nets just once and would get 400 kilogrammes or even 500 kilogrammes of fish. Right now, casting the net six times will only get you 100 kilogrammes to 200 kilogrammes of fish,” says Ali. A kilogramme sells at Sh60, which has to be divided amongst all fishermen on the boat.

In addition, the fishermen use a fishing net that is about 200 metres long and two metres wide, one of the fishing gears that have been declared illegal due to their impact on the environment.

Funds are scarce

George Maina, a marine biologist, explains just how destructive these nets are: “Usually, the seine net is tied between two boats, and then the two boats drag the net behind them.

The net drags everything along the ocean floor, including small fish and also breaks up the coral reef,” he says.

He adds, “Fish need coral to breed, so if there is no coral, there will be no fish to breed. Also, when you catch small fish, they do not have a chance to reproduce, which depletes fish supply even further.”

In Lamu, fishing is not only an income-generating activity, but also a lifestyle.

Ninety per cent of Lamu’s economy is dependent on the fishing industry, yet it faces a myriad challenges that threaten to cripple an already struggling county. The Lamu port that is currently under construction is set to generate revenue for the county, but is a threat to marine life.

“The economic loss to the fishermen is expected to be at least Sh1 billion. The government had promised to compensate fishermen who will be affected through the Resettlement Action Plan,” says Kamalu Sharif, Lamu county director for fisheries and livestock.

“That was to happen before the project began, but it is now ongoing and they have not received any compensation yet.”

Grace Mburu, the county executive for fisheries and livestock in Lamu says that since independence, the county has been marginalised.

“Without roads, investors will not come to buy our fish products and without electricity, we cannot have facilities like cold storage equipment to store our produce,” she says.

Lamu produces 75 per cent of the country’s lobster for local consumption and export, but because of exploitation by middlemen, lobster fishermen are some of the poorest in the country.

It was not until recently that the Sh3 billion Equalisation Fund was introduced by President Uhuru Kenyatta to accelerate development in counties that have been marginalised by previous regimes; this has helped the county improve economically.

“We are grappling with diminishing resources caused by over-exploitation of inshore waters,” says Kamalu Sharif, Lamu county director for fisheries and livestock.

Even where enforcement is possible, funds are scarce. Kamalu says that 70 per cent of the little funding that the county gets goes to development projects, with health and education getting first priority. In 2015, the Fisheries Department received Sh90 million, though they needed thrice as much.

This means that even personnel are not enough. “We have 32 fish-landing sites (places onshore where fishermen weigh and sell their catch after fishing) but only 12 fisheries assistants to man them,” says Kamalu.

However, even with limited funding, the region has instituted a number of measures to mitigate the situation.

One limitation that prevents fishermen from going into deeper waters is lack of engines on their boats and relying on sails means they have to stay close to the shore and use a lot of time travelling rather than fishing.

“We have provided outboard engines for a number of fishermen to encourage them to go out into deeper waters and stop over-fishing in inshore waters” says Kamalu.

“They used to fish for just three hours, now they go for six hours because they can now reach and leave further fishing grounds on time.” The engines are distributed under a loan scheme and 125 engines have been provided so far.

Kamalu says this has led to a 20 per cent increase in catch production because fishermen can now access fishing grounds. Lamu produces 220,000 metric tonnes of fish per year, which translates to about Sh354 million.

However, this is only a drop in the ocean in terms of Kenya’s potential, and they believe output could easily be 10 times more in ideal circumstances.

As a country we only exploit three nautical miles of our territorial waters for fishing, yet Kenya has 12 nautical miles of its own territorial waters.

In addition, Kenya’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is 200 nautical miles. The EEZ is a sea zone prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the law of the sea over which the country has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind. Lamu does not have any commercial fishing vessels to exploit this vast potential.

Awareness campaigns

The county government is nevertheless carrying out awareness campaigns for the community to manage what they currently have access to. They gave hooks and lines to 1,853 fishermen in 2015, whom they are training on alternative fishing methods.

According to Kamalu, fishermen lose 24 per cent of their catch through post-harvest losses and to mitigate this, the county administration is also investing in a cold store at Kizingitini worth Sh17 million. It has installed a 10-tonne ice-making machine at Rasini, Faza village, and is also installing eight solar freezers in Kiwayu Island.

It is also about to launch Ustawi, which is a system for fishermen to market their produce online, so that fishermen can know the real prices of their products in the market as opposed to arbitrary prices set by middlemen. This will also provide a better avenue for people to buy fish.