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Tuna catch dries up for Kenya's local fisherfolk

A Muslim woman relaxes in the afternoon sun on a cliff overlooking the Indian ocean near the Likoni ferry crossing in Mombasa after Friday prayers on February 20, 2014.   -  
Copyright © africanews
IVAN LIEMAN/Copyright© 2014 Ivan Lieman


"Tuna fish is mainly caught by people who have advanced fishing gear," says Chapoka Mohammed, a fisherman with over twenty years of experience.

He's one of many artisanal fishers in Shimoni, a bustling coastal town 82 kilometres (51 miles) south of Mombasa, dotted with dhows, dugout boats, outrigger canoes and skiffs anchored on the beach landing site.

Scores of fishmongers, processors and traders line the shoreline awaiting the fisherfolk's return.

Fishermen here say warming waters due to climate change have forced tuna species to alter their migration patterns, making it harder for local fishers to catch them.

Fish stocks have also decreased due to a lack of sustainable fishing by larger vessels.

The Shimoni channel, previously a well-known haunt for tuna, benefits from the north and south easterly monsoons, which can lead to substantial catches, according to records kept by the Kenya Fisheries Service.

But the current monsoon has been unkind to many.

Yellowfin tuna in particular, which fetches competitive prices at the market, is "very profitable if caught in sufficient quantities," says Leonard Loka, a fishmonger at Majengo Market in Mombasa.

"It is very expensive and in high demand," he says.

"If you can manage to sell two or three kilos, then you can comfortably feed your family. However, the yellowfin tuna is not readily available. We are only getting the other small species of fish."

Chapoka Mohammed is among just over 1,500 fisherfolk who rely on the rich marine waters of the channel.

Experienced fishermen say large foreign ships, more young men opting for artisanal fishing due to a lack of white-collar jobs, and higher education opportunities, and a changing climate are depleting livelihoods.

Vanga fisherman Kassim Abdalla Zingizi adds that most artisanal fisherfolk lack the skills, knowledge and financial support to compete with larger foreign vessels, mostly from Europe and Asia, which deploy satellite tracking technologies to trace the various tuna shoals all over the Indian Ocean.

"We have inferior equipment," he says.

"Trawlers can catch many yellowfin tuna as they can access the fish's habitat. We can only catch the fish after the trawlers have already made their catch."

Will McCallum, head of oceans at environmental group Greenpeace pins some of the blame on fish aggregating devices, which often catch young yellowfin tuna as bycatch.

"This is having a huge impact on the population of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean, which is again having a devastating impact or potentially devastating impact on the coastal communities that depend on it," says McCallum.

The Kenyan government is implementing an economic strategy that will address the effects of climate change on the livelihoods of those on the African coast, as well as boost skills among artisanal fisherfolk and promote more sustainable fishing practices, according to the Kenya Fisheries Service.

Subsidies for large fisheries — which have long been blamed for destructive fishing practices — have featured prominently at World Trade Organisation talks for over a decade with no resolution.

Earlier this year, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, that is responsible for the region's tuna regulations, was criticised for not implementing measures to protect several tuna species from overfishing at its annual meeting.

After catch limits for two tuna species were exceeded between 2018 and 2020, conservation groups lambasted the tuna commission for what they called a "decade of failure" which left tuna stocks "increasingly in peril".

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature called for a global boycott of yellowfin tuna.

The Maldivian government, which unsuccessfully proposed that members of the tuna commission reduce their catch by 22 percent from 2020, said it was "extremely disappointed" by the meeting's outcome.

The fisheries commission also agreed to set up two special sessions in the near future to iron out concerns over yellowfin tuna stocks, with the first slated for early 2023.

But the commission also passed a landmark resolution to study the effects of climate change on tuna fish stocks in the region, hailed as one of the conference's successes.

The study aims to understand the complex relationship between climate change, tuna fisheries and tuna stocks with a view of informing future adaptation and mitigation measures.

It's the second regional fisheries management organisation to implement a resolution of climate change.

Victor Boiyo, an environmental governance and management expert at Kenya's Nazarene University, says there's a need to properly regulate the fishing of yellowfin tuna.

"In the sense that we are fishing in a way that gives them time to reproduce and be able to continue play their role as a top predator and for that reason maintain the balance of the ecosystem of the marine and with that we will be able to support the commercial purposes as well as make sure that our ecosystems are well taken care of."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says climate variability has led to reduced marine stocks including redistribution, shifting of fish stocks from lower to higher latitude regions, coral bleaching and increased risk of conflict.

These changes are already being felt by local fishing communities.

"It is difficult due to climate change," says fisherman Kassim Abdalla Zingizi.

"This was not the case in the old days."

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