Amina Ahmed Mohammed has watched men prepare fishing gear and take to the waters in Lamu to fend for their families since she was a child.
That was until the tide changed.
Today, as men sail away to the deep oceans to catch fish, Amina leads her own band of women into the shallow edges of the ocean to catch octopus.
And the way nature does it is so befitting to their roles that she has no qualms going about it. While the men take to the waters at the crack of dawn, Amina and her team have to wait for the tide to recede before they begin the long trudge to locate corals where octopus inhabit.
When we trailed her in action, it was a mix of skill, patience and grace. Armed with a special rod and knees in water, she skillfully picked them out.
When the octopus wrapped its tentacles around her slender hands, I was frightened for her. But this was no scare for her and her fellow women who broke into ululations to celebrate the grand catch.
She quickly pulled the octopus from her hand and hurled it into a cool box before she moved in for the next catch.
Amina is the chairperson of 70 women engaged in sustainable fishing of octopus. They started the venture in June last year and the proceeds have been of immense help to their families.
Octopus is a revered delicacy and the women get a catch weighing at least 15kg. One octopus weighs between 2kg and 3kg and they sell a kilogramme for Sh150 in Mombasa and Tanzania. “We allow 20 women to go to the ocean at one time to fish the octopus. We do not need special outfits as octopus are found in shallow water,” she says.
Amina’s group works with Pate Marine Community Conservancy (PMCC) under Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT). Before they started out, they went on a study tour of Madagascar, where community marine management has been successful.
They came back with amazing ideas which they are now implementing, including putting up octopus closures to allow stocks to multiply.
NRT advisor, Dr Juliet King, says community based fishing management allows stocks to recover through simple measures like locally managed marine areas.
“The community identifies octopus closures where they restrict harvesting for four months. Octopus are amazing animals, they multiply very fast. We just started this venture and we are hoping that once they open the first closure, we will get a big catch,” she says.
PMCC manager Nadhir Hassan says they picked women from Pate, Shange Ishakani and Shanga Rubu villages to engage in fishing of octopus.
“Women have difficulty going into the deep sea to fish. It is easier for them to leave their home and walk to the ocean once the water has receded to harvest octopus,” he says. Mr Nadhir says besides fishing of octopus, the women are also involved in restoration of mangrove forests which are a source of livelihood for the local community.
The women wait until 11am before they wade through the shallow waters to the mangroves and identify areas that need replanting.
They then pick shoots from the trees which they sort out and plant.
Pate Women Group chairlady Arafa Aboud says 80 women are involved in replanting of mangroves. “We educate our children from mangrove products and we must ensure the forests thrive to benefit future generations,” she says.
Mangroves are affected by illegal and unregulated logging which have placed the habitat under threat.
PMCC chairman Mohamed Hussein says mangrove forests are a critical ecosystem as they are breeding grounds for fish.
The trees are also key for survival of crabs as they offer shelter, protect coral reefs from sedimentation and buffer shorelines against severe weather conditions like tsunami.
“Pate and Kiunga conservancies in Lamu have been working hard to rehabilitate degraded areas of mangrove forests, through a replanting programme with the Kenya Forest Service,” says Mr Hussein.
Since 2018, the women have planted more than 10,000 mangrove seedlings across fives acres of land, he says.
Hussein says 50 per cent of the Lamu County population derives their livelihood from selling mangrove products like timber and limestone which are used in building.
They discourage locals from using power saws to fell trees as oil spill from the equipment suffocates fish and other marine animals. Conservancy rangers patrol the mangrove forests to prevent felling of trees using power saw and instead encourage locals to use pangas.
In Mutangawanda, 10 villages with a total of 13,000 people are involved in replanting of mangroves.
Kenya Fisheries Department Lamu County official Misbahu Awadhi says community conservation is key in preserving ocean vegetation.
“These women leave their homes to wade in the ocean and muddy areas of the mangrove. They are doing an amazing job,” he says.
PMCC is also involved in conservation of the green turtle that is suffering poaching because of its priced meat and oil believed to have medicinal value. Patrols by rangers have stemmed the practice that was initially rampant with two or three turtles killed every month.
PMCC ranger Sgt Mahadhi Malau Bwana says a kilogramme of turtle meat costs Sh200 while 1 litre of oil goes for Sh1,000.
“From one turtle, the poachers can get between 120kg and 150kg of meat and five to eight litres of oil. The proceeds from the sale is what has made trade in turtle meat thrive,” he says.
He explains that Pate Island has 10 villages and each has a ranger which makes it easy to identify poachers. So far they have arrested two people.
NRT has also trained reef rangers who snorkel to check on the fish pollution and coral habitat in the Indian Ocean.
Bwana notes that the survey conducted in March and November shows that fish stocks have increased while coral health has improved.