Foreign fishing gear shaping marine conservation in Kenya

Fishermen on a motherboat prepare to cast a Ringnet in Kwale county PHOTO COURTESY

Kwale,KENYA:On a sunny afternoon at the Gasi beach landing site  in  Kwale county, Juma Said Mkuu scoops a handful of sardines .

“This were caught overnight,” Juma explains as a fisherman and fishmonger negotiate the price of the sardines.

Juma  a  fisherman and the chairperson of the Gasi Beach management unit, has been fishing for 20 years and he explains  the transformation  in his lifestyle  since he ditched  beach seine fishing gear  and embraced ringnet  fishing .

“The ringnet has transformed my life, I now own a permanent brick house and  I am  comfortably taking my children through high school,” Juma says.

Juma’s  grass to grace story is synonymous  with other fishermen at  Gasi, which is a prominent  fish trading centre in  Kwale county.

The ringnet fishing gear which derives it name from ringlike- metals fitted at the bottom of the net to help it sink  when cast into the ocean, first made its way into Kenyan waters in the early 90’s from nearby islands of Pemba and Zanzibar.

The net which is fitted with several buoys at the sides to prevent it from fully sinking is operated by a crew of 15-40 fishermen on a mother boat and several support boats.

The net was quickly adopted by local of fishermen who had been using illegal methods such as the beach seine net, the speargun, and  dynamite whose fishing involves setting off explosives on coral reefs so as to  stun fish to the surface.

According to a report published in 2006  by American  organization, the  National  centre of biotechnology information on artisanal  fishing  gear used at the Kenyan coast, beach seines , spearguns and gillnets caused the most damage to  corals which are food and habitat to about one thirds of the marine fish species.

Local experts  state that in the case of the  beach seine net which is still being used illegally in parts of the  Lamu coastline ,267 kilometers away, approximately 68% of the fish caught by the gear are juvenile fish with approximately  6.5% of the catch being  discarded  for being  invaluable or inedible.

The experts also attribute the  spear guns destruction  of the coral reefs  to instances when they   miss their target landing on corals .

Damaged corals can take upto 20 years to grow back.

However, the entry of the nets was vehemently opposed by a section of  fishermen in the region  and this prompted  the government  to suspend the use of the nets between 2009-2010 as  researchers and policy makers drafted laws to govern the use of the nets.

Dr. Cosmas Munga a senior lecturer at the Technical University of Mombasa who has researched extensively on fishing gear used at the Coast Region, says the  part of the reasons why the gear was legalized is to encourage fishermen in the region to fish  away from the shores where the probability of interfering with the corals is close to nill.

“Ringnets target large fish i.e.  250 grams and above  and in most cases  such species are pelagic; meaning they are found  in areas which are neither  too deep nor shallow. For a longtime  local fishermen have been using  methods such as the spear gun and beach seine that have  been attributed to the destruction of the coral and sea grass.” Munga says.

Munga admits that if not properly used, the nets can cause destruction of the coral hence the reason why the government has been educating fishermen on  effective use of the net  as they await the  passing of a set of laws drafted to govern use of the nets.

The draft laws state that among other laws the net  should not be used in  areas where the depth is  less than 20 metres and areas which are less than 3 miles away from the shore.

However, even before the law is passed, local beach management units are already enforcing the fishing rules to ensure that  environmental conservation standards are upheld in their units.

“Before you are accepted as a member into our  beach management unit, you have to prove that you can adhere to the  rules here, i.e. avoid fishing on shallow waters,your mesh size should not be less than 2.5 inches and you should avoid setting your net in areas where you have spotted turtles  and dolphins.” Juma Said Mkuu explains.

Juma explains that in cases where by-catchs are trapped in the net, his beach management unit encourages the fishermen to  release them back into the ocean when still alive.

Statistics from the department of fisheries indicated that as of 2016, there were more than 70 ringnet gears being used along the Kenyan coast which has a capability of  producing more than the required  1,000,000 tonnes  of fish annually.

In a bid to increase fishing productivity, the Kwale county government  in 2016 rolled out a program to distribute fishing vessels and ringnets to beach management units.

According to the county director of fisheries Martin Kiogora the ambitious project is to help minimize the reliance on imported fish to meet local demand.