For artisanal fishermen at the Kenyan coast, this is one of the worst times for their trade. A cocktail of hurdles muddy the waters they travel as they make a livelihood. When they are not worrying about being pushed out of business by foreign-owned trawlers that are encroaching on their territory, they are grappling with government-imposed safety rules that virtually bar them from venturing into the ocean.
This is even as it emerged that Kenya is struggling to monitor and intercept foreign vessels fishing in its territorial waters in the Indian Ocean.
Last year, the Vessel Monitoring System programme (VMS) operated by Collecte Localisation Satellites, a French company that has been providing satellite data to Kenya for years, stalled over $140,000 in unpaid fees.
Issuance of foreign fishing licences by Kenya has always been done under a cloud of secrecy so much so that efforts by The EastAfrican to get data on vessels permitted into the fishing zone by the government were thwarted severally by the Fisheries Department and senior maritime officials.
Now, local fishermen at the Kenyan Coast have expressed fears of being locked out of fishing in the Indian Ocean, if the government imposes what they call stringent safety rules, arguing they (the rules) will create room for more foreign vessels to exclusively and unfavourably exploit fish in the deep sea.
While fishing has been their main source of income, the fishermen say unfair competition from trawlers and stringent rules by Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) threaten to pull the plug on their work.
Local fishermen, especially those within the northern bank stretch of the Lamu Indian Ocean waters, say foreign trawlers believed to be from China, Spain and South Korea have been spotted on the shallow waters, particularly at night.
The fishermen said that the trawler fishing activities have resulted in destruction of artisanal fishing gear and damaged the sea floor and coral reefs in their areas.
According to Lamu Beach Management Unit Network chairman Mohamed Somo, the foreign fishing vessels are behind the unusual decline in catches in recent times.
Mr Somo said before illegal trawler fishing came to Lamu, fishermen would return home with a bounty of at least 90 kilogrammes of fish, all caught within five nautical miles into the Indian Ocean.
“Due to the effects brought by trawlers, fishermen sometimes come home with less than 40kg of fish,” he said.
Mr Somo said foreign vessels operate in the deep seas during the day but at night, they invade the shallow fishing space, which the local fishermen depend on for their artisanal fishing business.
He accused the trawler owners of not sticking to locations designated suitable for use of their vessels.
The Kenyan law permits trawler fishing only five nautical miles and beyond, but local fishermen lamented that many vessels were operating as close as two nautical miles from the shores.
Abdulrahman Sharif, a fisherman, said trawlers have forced many fishermen to quit.
“Many families depending on fishing will suffer if trawlers continue to operate in our ocean. These trawlers take all the best fish,” said Mr Sharif.
Things are not different for fishermen in Shimoni, Kwale. None of the more than 750 fishermen in six landing sites of Kijiweni, Kibuyuni, Ngomani, Kiromo and Mtimbani has a boat that will allow them to get high catches from the waters.
“If you see someone with a large boat, it’s borrowed from Vanga, which neighbours Tanzania. For us here, we can’t even go slightly farther from the shores to fish,” said Omar Bonga, one of the fishermen.
But like their counterparts from Lamu, they, too, watch as foreign-owned vessels from the Far East explore the waters.
This lack of equipment means foreign vessels belonging to Chinese and other Asian nationals get to fish in the deep waters and exploit exotic breeds for export.
“They later take the fish to their own artificial pools and export,” said Mr Bonga.
In Kilifi, Ngole Mbaji, the vice-chairman of Mtwapa Beach Management Unit said that fisherfolk at the coast are staring at a bleak future for their lack of advanced equipment, which confines them to the shallow ends.
This is despite President Uhuru Kenyatta launching a $86.9 million Kenya Marine Fisheries Social Economic Development project aimed at improving fishermen livelihoods.
But the same government has come up with regulations fishermen are finding difficult to adhere to for they are costly.
The Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) now wants operators of engine-powered boats to have the International Convention on Standards of Training, certificate of watch keeping for seafarers’ certification. It also wants the boats to undergo safety inspection and certification.
Coxswains who are supposed to operate the fishing vessels are required to undergo training at the Bandari Maritime Academy to get a certificate and licence to operate.
All these, said Mr Mbaji, will cost them more than $8,699 – an amount he said is too high as most fishermen live from hand to mouth
“What KMA has done is like putting smoke in a beehive. They are just using our weaknesses to remove us from the sea, to make way for these foreigners,” Mr Mbaji said.
Fishermen now say the costly licences keep them away from the waters. They will not be allowed to fish if they lack specific fishing gear, fishing nets and registration details of their boats.
“We usually fish with monofilament which floats in the water, but we have now been told that affects corals when they go deeper in the waters,” he explained, adding they cannot raise money for the costly nets required.
Just as there are harvesting seasons for crops, so too have fish in the waters seasons.
“During the high season, we did not earn enough and right now no one has savings. The fishermen’s plan is they work hard during the high season and then have enough savings that will take them through the low season when there is little or no fish,” he said.
This is happening while the government his making efforts in putting resources to support local fishermen.
Even as they anticipate in the high season starting in July, Kenyan fishermen are worried that it is only the foreigners who will benefit from the waters. It is said that the foreigners arrive in the deep sea between November and March during the peak and fish for almost six months. Their targets are tuna, shellfish and prawns that are a common and expensive delicacy in their country.
Fishmongers are now forced to buy fish from Chinese and other depots owned by foreigners to sell in the local market.
“Currently, all the fish that is in the market is from China. The women selling fish must wake up at dawn to go to the Chinese depots and purchase the fish, clean them, and sell them in the market,” said Mr Mbaji.
He argues that despite having the sea to fish from and facilities such as cold storage, their target as fishermen is still not being met.
Last year, and through the Global Fish Watch tracker site, The EastAfrican compiled a list of hundreds of fishing vessels within Kenyan waters, undertaking deep sea fishing. Most of these vessels are foreign owned, with China, Seychelles, Italy, Taiwan, and Hong Kong flagged vessels, appearing multiple times on the tracking site, recording over 64,000 fishing hours within Kenyan waters.
This work was produced as a result of a grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.