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.