By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (AA) - Illegal trade of marine species is destroying aquatic life on East Africa’s coast as fishermen armed with banned gear catch endangered species for their economic survival, researchers warn.
Mwanahija Shalli, a professor of marine and coastal resources management at the University of Dar es Salaam, said illegal fishing has led to the harvesting of marine species at a rate too high for them to reproduce.
“This situation is posing a serious threat to marine biodiversity and is dangerously throwing ecosystems out of balance,” she told Anadolu Agency.
Shalli was reacting to the findings of a new report by the nonprofit wildlife conservation group TRAFFIC which suggests that some endangered species are on the verge of extinction due to overexploitation.
The report -- Rapid assessment of the trade threat of near shore fisheries along the coast of Kenya and Tanzania -- counted 489 endangered marine species for sale at artisanal fish markets in Kenya and Tanzania, raising concern over the depletion of fish resources.
It found that sea species, including lobsters, sea turtles, tuna, octopuses, prawns, sharks, and sea cucumbers, are rapidly declining.
According to TRAFFIC researchers, small mesh nets were being used by fishermen in Tanzania and Kenya, and the size of the fish on sale varied widely.
“This indicates that fish are likely being caught before they reach reproductive maturity,” said one of the researchers, Camilla Floros.
- Inadequate law enforcement
According to the report, enforcement of the relevant laws in both countries is hampered by insufficient funding and knowledge of protected species.
“Managing wildlife from overexploitation goes beyond just legislation; laws must be understood by those concerned and effectively upheld by law enforcement,” said Floros.
While most species are sold in village markets, large fish, including tuna, sharks, and barracudas, are sold to middlemen who transport them to Nairobi, Eldoret, and Nakuru in Kenya or Dodoma and Arusha in Tanzania, the report found.
Middlemen sell the fisheries products to tourist hotels and fish processors in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, it added.
According to the report, earnings from marine species trade significantly differ among fishermen.
On average, a trader in Tanzania can earn up to 11,500,000 Tanzanian shillings ($4,932) per year, whereas fishermen barely get $400 a year.
In contrast, city traders have significantly higher earnings, the report noted.
One fisherman in the rural Mkinga district of Tanga, Tanzania was revealed to earn on average 340,000 Tanzanian shillings ($146.00) from selling marine products, while the same marine products would sell for 1,360,000 Tanzanian shillings ($583.00) in Dar es Salaam, the report said.
According to the report, octopuses and prawns are the most traded fish products in Tanzania and Kenya, which are mainly exported to Portugal, Italy, France, and Spain.
In an email to Anadolu Agency, TRAFFIC's research manager Martin Andimile said the management of marine resources in Tanzania, where many people rely on fisheries for their livelihoods, is important.
“Rapid population growth is driving up the demand for fish, and the lack of alternative livelihoods for fishing communities means that more boats are out fishing on the ocean, putting pressure on fish stocks,” he said.
Although both Tanzania and Kenya have regulations that govern protected species and illegal fishing methods, fishermen still use destructive fishing gear, he said.
“If authorities don’t implement fishing regulations, overexploitation will continue to threaten fish stocks,” he added.
According to Andimile, illegal dynamite fishing is still practiced in remote parts of the coastline where enforcement is limited.
“This practice is extremely destructive because it indiscriminately kills any marine species in the immediate vicinity, including corals,” he said.
Andimile said the destruction of corals is highly concerning, as they are the foundation of reef ecosystems.
“If they are destroyed, then there will be no natural habitat for the thousands of reef species that live within the coral reef ecosystem,” he said.
According to TRAFFIC researchers, the disparity of laws between Tanzania, Kenya, and Zanzibar has made it increasingly hard to protect endangered species.
While fishing for sea cucumbers is banned in Tanzania, they are allowed to be farmed and harvested in Zanzibar, researchers said.
“Fishers illegally harvest sea cucumbers along the Tanzanian coastline and transport them to Zanzibar, where they are mixed with sea cucumber sources from legal farming operations and subsequently exported,” Andimile said.
He said marine legislation governing “protected” or “prohibited” species also differs between Tanzania and Kenya and consequently facilitates transboundary illegal fishing and trade in marine species.
- Dwindling stocks
Fishermen who spoke to Anadolu Agency said their daily catch has declined and fish sizes are getting smaller.
“Many of my friends still use blast fishing,” said Sultani Farouk, a fisherman in Tanzania’s Tanga region.
Armed with dynamite, fishermen in the Pangani district northeast of Tanga toss kerosene bombs into the coral reefs daily, killing thousands of fish at a time.
Blast fishing, which is blamed for a reduction of fish stocks in the Indian Ocean, involves illegal fishermen who use homemade bombs to send shock waves into the sea, stunning and killing thousands of fish and other marine organisms, which are then collected and sold in local markets.
“I don’t think it is proper to kill fish with bombs. You may get a profit once, but it won’t be sustainable,” said Farouk.