Deep-sea gear helps Kenyan fishermen ride rough waves of climate change
FISHERMAN Ahmed Amir Samir, 35, who works in the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa, feels his job got a lot safer after the county government donated modern boats to locals nearly 18 months ago.
“Sometimes in tumultuous waves, we would risk our lives going out into the deep ocean using locally made wooden canoes,” he said, describing artisanal fishing as costly and dangerous.
As many parts of the world struggle with the effects of climate change, the ocean is warming fast, seas are rising and storms are becoming more powerful, threatening marine ecosystems and communities that rely on ocean resources to earn a living.
But in Mombasa, fishermen say their new equipment has made their trade easier and more profitable, helping revive livelihoods weakened by the COVID-19 crisis and climate change.
Samir, a member of the Old Town Beach Management Unit, a group of local fishers, said the new engine-powered vessels are helping them catch more, as they can go as far as 80 km (50 miles) out to sea compared to 8-10 km in the old boats.
Kenya’s ministry of environment and forestry has predicted sea-level rise along the country’s coast could lead to flooding, erosion and wetland loss, affecting tens of thousands of people.
The national climate change action plan for 2018-2022 also noted that fishing communities report fish moving from the shore into deeper waters as sea temperatures rise – a key reason why they need better equipment to operate safely further out.
Gabriel Grimsditch, a marine ecosystems expert at the U.N. Environment Programme, noted that the ocean absorbs most of the excess heat from manmade greenhouse gas emissions.
That has caused sea temperatures to rise, affecting many marine species and ecosystems like coral, which have seen bleaching, die-offs and weakening around the world.
That reduces food sources for fish, and shrinks their populations, with a knock-on effect for fishing communities.
“As we lose corals, this has cascading impacts on the coral reef ecosystems, leading to losses in biodiversity and ecosystem services to coastal peoples, resulting in reduced food security,” Grimsditch said in emailed comments.
Kenya’s commitment to nurture its ocean-based “blue” economy is anchored in a national development plan, which includes food security as one of its four pillars and aims to transform the nation into an industrialised, middle-income country by 2030.
In this context, the Mombasa county government is promoting sustainable use of ocean resources, which play a major role in providing food and decent incomes to coastal communities.
Tendai Mtana Lewa, Mombasa County executive committee member for agriculture and fisheries, said the government had donated equipment, including motorised boats and diving suits worth 198 million Kenyan shillings ($1.8 million) to 14 Beach Management Units (BMUs).
These community-led fishing groups have been enlisted to help manage, monitor and protect local marine resources.
“For generations, fishing has been artisanal and restricted to the shoreline, so our efforts are to establish an enterprise around fishing by providing the right inputs for those who want to venture into deep-sea fishing,” Mtana said.
The United Nations estimates that some 60 million people live within 100 km (62 miles) of the western Indian Ocean coast, with their livelihoods mostly marine-based, including fishing and tourism.
These activities are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as the stronger tropical cyclones hitting the region, it says.
Earlier this year, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that Cyclone Eloise had displaced more than 176,000 people and destroyed 146,000 hectares of crops in Mozambique, for example.
According to a 2019 World Bank report, Kenya’s sea fisheries are worth $4.4 billion a year, and employ more than 27,000 fishers, about half of them operating on a small scale.
Mtana said the main objective of donating new vessels was to transform the industry, while the beach management units have been repurposed to serve as co-operatives to support business.
Since 2019, the government has helped fishing communities in phases, providing them with basic equipment and training divers.
Those efforts are now bearing fruit as an additional 3,000 fishermen and 1,000 boat-builders have been employed along Kenya’s coast, with new opportunities created for 6,000 fish traders, who are mostly women.
Ahmed Swaleh, who chairs the Old Town Beach Management Unit in Mvita Sub-County, a group of 280 fishermen and traders, said local fishers and their work are threatened by more extreme weather, but the unit helps protect them.
“We get early warning of upcoming storms and high tidal waves from the Kenya Maritime Authority, and we tell our members not to go fishing,” he said.
The new equipment also enables them to navigate stormy seas better, he added.
This, coupled with better organisation and a system of using the boats through the BMUs, has pushed down the cost of fishing while catches have improved, boosting incomes, locals said.
Previously, many fishermen earned as little as 500 shillings or less per day. But Samir, like many of his peers now brings in 3,000-5,000 shillings daily, enabling him to cover school fees for his children, food and other family needs.
Members of Mombasa’s BMUs also look after the shoreline and stop people damaging it with illegal structures such as food kiosks, sand harvesting and littering plastic waste.
Swaleh said his unit normally cleans the beach every two weeks and reports any infringements to the relevant authorities.
Mtana said Mombasa’s environment department is also aiming to expand and maintain coastal mangroves, together with BMUs and others, to reduce the impacts of storms and rising seas, as well as restoring fishing grounds that have been used as dump-sites.
The plan is to shift the economy away from a reliance on tourism and port logistics to a more nature-friendly model.
“We want to build a strong foundation for a blue economy which is unique to Mombasa people that utilises and conserves marine ecosystems,” he added.