Fishermen pull up the nets in waters off Dar es Salaam in September 2018. Photograph: Peter Caton for the Observer
In Dar-es-Salaam, local fishermen are being squeezed out by illegal boats with explosives which take much of the catch, killing coral reef and putting an eco-system at risk.
Fishing boat XTK191, known as Home Boy, returned to Kivukoni fish market in downtown Dar es Salaam at dawn one day last week. The 15 young men on board the old dhow dropped anchor and heaved their catch over the side for others to run it across the beach to where hundreds of traders milled.
Within an hour of landing in eastern Africa’s largest fish market, Home Boy’s fish, crabs, prawn, lobsters, tuna, squid and shark pups were being sold in impromptu auctions, along with the catches of several dozen other boats.
But it was another disappointing voyage for skipper Peter Damasi and his crew. The heavy boat with a poor engine and no sail could not travel far. It spent most of its time in the shallow seas and reefs between Dar es Salaam and Mafia island, six hours away. They caught a few large red snappers and an eel, but the catch was small. It commanded a good price, but, says Damasi, it was close to the full moon, which traditionally makes it harder to fish, and Home Boy used 60 litres of diesel. The crew, whose wages depended on the catch, would have earned just a few dollars for their long days and nights’ work.
Nasser Ismael, one of Kivukoni’s market’s six board members, says he is both pleased and fearful about the situation. “The market is thriving. Fish have never been more in demand. Ten years ago, we had 10,000 people coming here every day. Now it’s 15,000. Over 150 boats come regularly and we are expanding. We export fish to Singapore. But the fish are disappearing, the catches are poor and the fish are much smaller than they used to be. We have advised the government that the industry needs to be modernised.”
His concerns are shared by Mapunda “Mr Star” Stamili, director of the nearby Star Fish food supply company. “We used to see 50kg tuna, and big kingfish, large sharks,” says Stamili. “We still get barracuda, dorado, red snapper, but they are not so big these days. The big fish are now only in the deep sea and small boats cannot go there. It’s dangerous. Ships and people disappear. Only last week, one man died at sea in a storm.
“The price of fish is very high now. It depends on availability. It’s upside-down compared with 10 years ago. Then fish was cheap and beef was expensive.”
According to global species database FishBase, Tanzania has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, with more than 1,700 species recorded in its waters. Of these, 47 are commercially important, 69 are found only in deep water and 171 are threatened. With such bountiful resources, Tanzania should not need to import fish, but the government, regional agencies and the UN’s food and agriculture organisation say overfishing is rampant, depleting stocks, raising prices and threatening food security.
“It is a disgrace for a country like Tanzania to import fish, while there are plenty of species that could meet fish demand in the country,” says Abduallah Ulega, the deputy minister for livestock and fisheries.
Despite the number of fishing boats increasing by nearly 20% in five years to 66,000, the country recorded a sharp decline in catches, from 390,000 tonnes a year on average, to 360,000 tonnes in 2017, says the government. In 2016, Tanzania’s total demand was about 730,000 tonnes of fish, of which about 50% came from salt water and the rest from Lake Victoria and the growing number of fish farms. The shortfall is made up with fish from China and elsewhere.
But getting data on Tanzania’s annual catch or its fish stocks is hard. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by artisan, commercial and deep-sea fishing, is thought to be taking as much as 20% of the country’s fish costing the economy $400m a year, says the UN. Many vessels operate illegally or under false identities, catches are transferred at sea and not recorded, and market data showing fish landings is not exact.
What is certain is that fishing has become important in providing food for millions as the Tanzanian population more than doubled – from about 34 million in 2000 to 59 million today and an expected 89 million by 2035. Dar es Salaam and other coastal centres are growing fast, adding demand for seafood, and Lake Victoria, which Tanzania shares with Uganda and Kenya, is also heavily overfished.
The combination of booming demand, high prices and what should be abundant seas has encouraged rampant illegal fishing, says a Botswana-based NGO, Stop Illegal Fishing, which is funded by European and US donors.
The easiest method used by illegal fishers – but also the most ecologically damaging – is “blast fishing”, which uses dynamite or homemade bottle bombs made from fertiliser and kerosene. A single explosion can kill as much as 400kg of fish in a radius of 100ft, worth up to US$1,800, but will also destroy a reef. The chances of offenders being caught are negligible.
Tanzania is one of the few countries in the world where blast fishing is still carried out. “Explosives are easily accessed from the mining and construction industries,” says a Stop Illegal Fishing spokesman. “The low rate of enforcement and prosecutions, aggravated by corruption, bribery and intimidation of officials and fishers makes it easy. It destroys the coral reefs and threatens the country’s international tourism industry.”
California-based conservation group Sea Shepherd Global, best known for direct action campaigns including opposing Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean, is now working with Tanzanian government agencies to patrol Indian Ocean waters with a new 30knot cutter class ship, the Ocean Warrior.
The group, which has previously been employed to monitor and arrest illegal fishers in the Galapagos islands and off the west African coast, reported in July that its three-month Operation Jodari had resulted in the arrest of the owners and operators of two trawlers for illegal shark finning, the confiscation of 27 small dhows for smuggling and the fining of 19 vessels.
According to the government, which had its own inspection teams onboard the Ocean Warrior, the Chinese-flagged Tai Hong 1 and the Malaysian Buah Naga 1 vessels were both found to be carrying cargoes of shark fins, suggesting the carcasses of the fish had been thrown overboard. Fines of more than $8m were levied on foreign fishing vessels.
Large foreign trawlers are now common off the east African coast, says IUUWatch, an EU-based organisation monitoring illegal fishing in the Indian ocean. “These trawlers deploy giant, non-selective nets, wiping out entire schools of tuna, including the young ones, which they discard dead.”
But while it is easier to track fishing vessels with GPS and satellite systems, apprehending them and taking them to court is hard and expensive. Last year an EU-World Bank project saw 49 patrols carried out along the eight countries on the east African coast. This resulted in 12 vessels being seized and 120 offences recorded. At the same time, 670 boats, many of which were suspected of fishing illegally, were monitored.
The situation on Lake Victoria, meanwhile, is critical, says the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation. It estimates that between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda there are now more than 200,000 fisherman and 60,000 fishing boats, with a further 2,000 new boats taking to the lake each year. The result, says the UN food and agriculture organisation, is a dramatic drop in thenumber and size of Nile perch, from as much as 50kg per fish in the 1980s to less than 10kg today.
“It’s happening all over Africa,” says Damasi, in Kivukoni market. “As the big fish disappear, we are forced to catch smaller fish. But by wiping out the smaller fish, which have not had time to reproduce, we are threatening the species’ survival.”