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Commercial overfishing threatens coastal livelihoods

[Mozambique] Fishermen bring in their catch - Maputo. [Date picture taken: 10/2006]
Fishermen in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, bring in their catch (Tomas de Mul/IRIN)

Artisanal fishing provides a critical source of food and income to thousands of Mozambicans, but the ever-increasing local and international demand for fish, combined with rapidly depleting stocks, is putting increasing strain on this way of life.

The UN Food and Agriculture Programme (FAO) has estimated that small-scale fishermen, who caught 84,065 tonnes of fish for the domestic market in 2000, will need to catch 171,040 tonnes to help meet local demand by 2025.

The pressure is mounting: Mozambique's shallow coastal waters have been over-fished, its population - 40 percent of whom live on less than one US dollar a day - is growing at 2.4 percent annually, and traditional fishing techniques can no longer compete in a globalised fishing world.

A lack of modern equipment and skills has left an estimated 90,000 small-scale fishermen, who provide directly for 50,000 families, unable to access deep-water species or make the best of diminishing coastal stocks.

The country's 2002 fishing census highlighted one of the main difficulties traditional fishermen face when it revealed that only three percent of the 24,000 boats they used had engines that would allow them to fish in deeper waters.

No peace dividend for fisherman

The irony of the hardships facing Mozambique's artisan fishing industry is not lost on Lucas Antonio Matibe, a shrimp catcher in the southern province of Inhambane, who has trawled the Mozambican coast for over 40 years.

During the country's 17-year civil war, which ended in 1992, the waters of the Mozambican Channel teemed with marine life, but the conflict restricted trade, putting lucrative international and regional fish markets out of reach. Now that markets have become accessible, the country's abundant fish resources have begun to disappear, Matibe said.

"We always thought that when the war ended we would be able to sell our extra fish beyond our villages. Compared to my time as a young man there is much more money to be made from selling fish now, but the fish are no longer here in great numbers," he told IRIN.

"I can't explain why they are gone, but each year we catch less and less. I do not know what we would do if the fish disappeared - it is how we feed our families. We are proud of our tradition, but we need help. There are too many fishermen now because there are no jobs, so only those who can compete will survive."

Over exploited and poorly patrolled

The scale of the overfishing problem came to light in 2006, when a UN report by the South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission claimed that only 25 percent of the fish stocks in the region were under-exploited, and that in coastal areas most species were considered fully or over-exploited.

''I can't explain why they are gone, but each year we catch less and less. I do not know what we would do if the fish disappeared - it is how we feed our families''

According to the FAO, the most recent figures show the current exploitation of demersal fish, shallow-water shrimp, line fish and deep-water lobster is extreme. A lack of marine management and an ever-increasing number of fishermen - both artisanal and commercial - is partly responsible, but experts also blame widespread illegal fishing by Western fishing fleets.

According to 'The Crisis of Marine Plunder in Africa', a report published in November 2007 by the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), a South Africa-based think-tank, poaching and over-fishing off southern and eastern Africa has become so extreme that permanent damage to the marine environment appears imminent.

West Africa's fish stocks were exploited by European, Russian and Asian fishing fleets in the second half of the 20th century, but in recent years the industry set its sights on the shoals in the continent's southern and eastern waters.

The ISS report conservatively estimated that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in Africa had become a US$1 billion a year industry. "In Mozambique, illegal fishing in the tuna and shrimp industry was set at approximately $38 million."

The government has put a scientific stocktaking process in place, but it will take extensive surveillance of foreign fishing fleets, along with regular stock counts, to combat the problem.

Taking stock does not present any special difficulties, but Mozambique has struggled to effectively patrol its 2,700km coastline, despite the recent donation of five navy patrol vessels and equipment by the US and South Africa for the interception and inspection of trawlers involved in suspicious activities.

Fishing programme underway

The National Institute for the Development of Small Scale Fishing of the Mozambican Fisheries Ministry has been struggling to raise the $54 million needed to implement a Strategic Plan for artisanal fishermen from 2007 to 2011.

The project aims to give small-scale fishermen access to credit, which would allow the sector to grow by about 30 percent, and address transport, storage and marketing issues, so that fishermen could reach more distantly located domestic and regional markets.

Until the middle of January 2008, lack of funding meant the southern Mozambican provinces of Gaza and Inhambane would miss out on the programme but a recent $4.2 million donation by the Italian government has secured participation of the two provinces.

However, a large chunk of the budget remains outstanding and if this is not secured, many of Matibe's fellow fishermen might never get the chance to upgrade their age-old fishing techniques.

bc/tdm/he


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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