Friday, 7 June 2013

Likoni Fishermen

Fishermen fixing a net

The life of a small-scale artisanal fishermen is hard anywhere in the world, but here in Mombasa and along the East African coast, it is especially hard. The over fished waters and the lack of infrastructure makes fishing an unprofitable business, yet many continue, as this is all they know. As numbers of fish continue to drastically decline, the fishing techniques adopted by the fishermen become increasingly ruthless.

Unsustainable fishing techniques are one of many problems that threat the marine eco-system. For this reason, the Kenyan Department of Fisheries has enforced laws and regulations so fishing communities can take responsibility over the management of their fisheries resources. These are regulated by Beach Management Units (BMUs), which constitute of local fishermen and ladies. The idea is that after training from the government, the stakeholders should have the capacity to regulate each other and make decisions.

Thus far, BMUs have reduced the use of destructive fishing gears and the harvesting of undersized fish by 40%, but even thought they have played a role in the improvement of fisheries practices along the coast, there is still a great deal of work left to do. The improper management of some BMUs and the lack of regulation has resulted in basic regulations being broken. Targets are not being meet because of this, and even though there have been some areas of development, overall, the Kenyan Coast has far from recovered.

So, when I organised a meeting with the Likoni BMU, just South of Mombasa Island, I should have known better then to have expected to see an example of a perfectly run fishing co-operative. Consisting of over 600 fishermen, the Likoni BMU is one of the largest in Mombasa County. The management site stretches from Likoni Ferry, all the way down to the beginning of Tiwi, where there is another group of fishermen who are part of Kwale Beach Management Unit. Because of this, regulation and monitoring can be very difficult. This often leads to badly kept and often fragmented records. This can be frustrating for NGOs and government departments who want to help BMUs. 

Map of Mombasa and the Likoni BMU site

Like most BMUs, Likoni has a number of Bandas that are dotted along the beaches in it’s management area. Bandas serve as a sheltered area where meetings and training session can be held; where fish can be cleaned and traded. It’s a communal space and structures vary from basic huts to concrete buildings. The Likoni banda was built in 2007 by Eco Ethics International and the Lighthouse Foundation, two organisations that work with coastal fishing communities in Kenya.

Likoni Banda

The banda is situated two minuets away from Likoni Market. This is where I met the fishermen who were to show me around. I wasn't quite sure about their positions in the BMU, but was told they could answer any questions I had. We talked by the banda for a while, then was shown around the site.

The banda lookes out over the creek towards Mombasa Island and sits on a cliff, with stairs going down to the waters edge. It can be seen clearly from the south side of Mombasa Island. Walking up to the cliff to see the view of the Island, I noticed I was stood on a massive pile of rubbish that went down to a small patch of sand. The smell was horrendous and it was clear that this rubbish was being washed by the waves into the creek. It wasn't a pretty sight, and I was a little surprised that this was happening so close to where the fish was being handled.

Huge pile of rubbish outside the banda

I was told that I had missed the early morning catch, but had arrived just on time to see a late fishermen come in. I was told that the catch would be small, due to the size of fishermen's dhow and also because he was by himself. This would also suggest that he caught the fish using a line as it requires more then two hands to pull in a net. This method is preferred as it’s a more sustainable way of harvesting fish. As I also saw, the catch did not vary in size and species, as it otherwise would have if a net were being used. The only fish caught was the white snapper, an easy fish to catch along the reef. It bites on to inexpensive bait such as squid and is a good enough size to be marketable.

Fishermen coming in

The catch

The fish would normally have been weighed before being taken to the market. Two shillings for each kilogram is given to the BMU, kind of like tax that keeps the BMU running. This was not done with the late fishermen. I thought it may be because he arrived late. But when I asked to see inside the banda, I realised why the catch was not weighted. The place was a shambles, a mess beyond repair. The building was not being used and was covered in a thick coating of dust. This included the weighing scales. It was obvious the banda had not been used in a long time, and when I tried to take pictures, I was hurried out to see the selling of the white snapper in the market.

White snapper

A little dismayed and annoyed I walked up to the market to find a pleasant hubbub of activity. The selling and buying of fish was exciting. I’ve always been told that fresh fish should never smell fishy, and I must say, there was only a very slight hint of fishy odour in the air. The flies on the other hand were feasting, and I don't blame them, there was an incredible array fresh seafood.

Changu Fish
Selection of fish



Rabbit fish

Talking to the fishermen, I began to realise that this was the low season for catching fish. They told me how this time of the year is hard for them, so sometimes they have to use nets. This results in some obscure species being caught. Rays are normally not eaten, but because they are caught up in the nets, they are flogged at the market for a cheap price.

Sting Ray

Further down the fish market I noticed a large collection of shells and conches. All of which are illegal to remove form the ocean bed if still alive. I wasn't all that impressed, especially when I saw the insides of a live spider shell being hung out to dry. I asked if the meat was eaten at all, and was told that it was only for decorative purposes. The shells are sold to tourists and locals who visit the beaches up and down the coast. Sold at 1,000 – 4,000Kenyan Shillings, I began to realise that this was a means of making a living during hard times. Although it’s not good for the ocean, it does mean that the fishermen’s family can be fed, clothed and schooled for the coming month.


Spider Shell drying

By the shells I also saw a shark’s jaw and a dried out puffer fish. I was not sure what their purpose was, and was little worried to ask as I got the impression that the fishermen were getting rather suspicious of my presence and picture taking.

Shark teeth

Dried out puffer fish
I took my pictures said my good byes, then headed for the ferry back to Mombasa Island. I began to  get the feeling that I had over stayed my visit, and that certain people were expecting me to pay them for allowing me to be there. The experience was confusing as much as it was frustrating. I had learnt a great deal, but nothing really that made me feel confident in the Likoni BMU. I left the market feeling disheartened by what I had seen. It is sometimes hard to see such things because you realise these practices mean the eventual demise of the artisanal fishermen, but at the same time I cant help but empathise with the struggles they seem to go through. It’s difficult enough to get farmers to see the long-term benefits of sustainable farming practices, but for fishermen it is a great deal harder as they can't see first hand their resources. This has led to project failure in many places.

Bellow is a short film made by Austin Humphries, a PhD student interested in how humans have altered the coastal ecosystems. The film shows techniques used along the Mombasa Coast to revive fish stocks but also the problems faced. It's an unbiased account of the struggles faced by fishermen, and the destruction done to the once colourful shallow waters of the East African Coast:

Mikono ya Wavuvi (In Fishermen's Hands) from Austin Humphries on Vimeo.


  1. Great story, Dipa, and highlights many of the issues surrounding the management of an open access resource in a region with high poverty and low capacity/infrastructure.

    Shame you weren't able to visit Gazi as a comparison/contrast. Maybe next time!

  2. I was under the impression that Chinese fishing vessels illegally fish around africa and absolutely destroy local fish stocks and then move to the next area. The coast guard does nothing to stop this. I'm not sure the local fisherman have such a large impact on the ecosystem as you believe.

    1. You are not wrong, although I do believe the chinese have stopped fishing along the east african coast due to the somalian pirates... i cant confirm this for now.
      But i can confirm that the east coast of africa is protected by a delicate reef (where fish reproduce and where the juvenile fish hang out) which the fishermen, due to basic fishing boats, are unable to go much further from. They end up catching young/small fish which isn't helping replenish the fish stocks. If there are no baby fishes there isn't anything for the vessels to catch in the first place. It effects the whole food chain unfortunately.
      There ultimately needs to be better enforcement from BMUs to coastal guards along the african coast. It's unfortunate that this hasn't happened so far to the scale we need to see better fish stocks globally.