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Calling for a bigger voice for Africa’s small fishing communities on World Ocean Day

Step on board a dhow cresting the waves off the coast of Zanzibar as a dozen men strain every sinew to hall in a catch of tuna, crabs, lobsters and prawns and you step inside one of Africa’s biggest conservation challenges.
With as many as 70.7 million people living along Africa’s coast, this is where the critical challenge of balancing the needs of people and the planet hangs in the balance. Protecting, restoring, and managing our oceans for the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities and beyond is crucial to the continent’s sustainable future.
As we celebrate  World Ocean Day today, this year’s theme of “Life and Livelihoods” is more relevant than ever.  Our oceans, and the livelihoods of the people that depend on them, are teetering on the edge - undermined by climate change, destructive development, and overfishing[1]. The potential impacts of the mismanagement of this critical resource are hard to overemphasize and of particular importance in  Africa, where oceans play a critical role in food, nutritional, and livelihood security for coastal communities and beyond. They are a potentially important contributor to a blue and just recovery[2].
The economic value of ocean-related activities and services in the Western Indian Ocean is estimated at US$ 20.8 billion annually, though this is conservative. This gross marine product includes coastal tourism, carbon sequestration, coastal protection, fisheries, and aquaculture. Ensuring this natural capital is nourished and sustained is crucial to the future of the continent.
On World Ocean Day our message is clear: We can enrich Africa without impoverishing nature.
Despite their importance to societies around the world, and despite increasing appreciation of this, the contributions of coastal communities and small-scale fishers are still undervalued, underreported, and consequently overlooked in fisheries policy. That needs to change and change rapidly. The clock is ticking on this conservation challenge in Africa.
Where fisheries management measures are in place, their implementation is often insufficient and ineffectual. This results in declining biodiversity, and loss of ecosystem productivity with consequent erosion of dependent human well-being.
On World Ocean Day we are calling for small fishing communities in Africa to be given a bigger voice and role in overcoming one of Africa’s biggest conservation challenges. We are calling on policy makers to recognize that small fishing communities have a big role to play in overcoming Africa’s conservation and sustainability challenge.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has for decades worked with communities and countries across the continent to put small fishing communities on a sustainable footing. We are ready and willing to work with partners to achieve a better outcome for all.
We have paid particular attention to the South West Indian Ocean (SWIO) region (Fig. 1) - targeting small-scale fisheries along coastlines of Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, South Africa, Seychelles, Comoros and Mauritius.
In Africa, small-scale fisheries make a significant contribution in fish production. About 60% of Africa’s fisheries production – in some countries, almost 100% - is generated by small-scale fisheries. In the SWIO region, where WWF’s ocean’s work has concentrated, small-scale fisheries form a large share of the total national catch - with Tanzania and Madagascar standing at 98% and 72% respectively. These data are only a fraction of the potential that is offered by small-scale fisheries due to lack of credible, up to date data and limited attention by coastal states to small-scale fisheries’ definition, production and contributions.
Fishing in the future must be about more than survival. It must be about sustainability.
Coastal and fishing communities have served as traditional stewards of coastal ecosystems for hundreds of years. Their survival is inextricably linked to the health of these ecosystems. In many parts of the world, the sustainable management of coastal ecosystems, essential to the food and livelihood security of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, is severely lacking.
Small-scale fisheries, which mainly operate in coastal and inland freshwater ecosystems, account for more than 90% of the world’s commercial fishers, processors, and other employees along the value chain – roughly 108 million people worldwide, whereas, in the SWIO region around 495,000 fishers are engaged in small-scale fisheries with 150,000 vessels operating. Importantly, almost 50% of those employed are women.
Several challenges exist to enable the effective engagement of coastal communities in decisions for the management of marine resources which directly affect their well-being and livelihoods. Recognizing, protecting, and securing legitimate tenure rights to marine resources as well as ensuring that indigenous and local knowledge is incorporated into decision making requires sustained engagement with decision makers. Supporting coastal communities’ efforts to self-organize through effective representative networks is critical. It is imperative to have strong representative bodies that can speak out at local, national, regional, and international fora to ensure local knowledge and rights are appropriately recognized.
The decline in fish stocks due to overcapacity and overfishing in the SWIO region is alarming. In 2010, the South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission (SWIOFC) reported that around 65% of coastal fish stocks were fully exploited and 29% were overexploited i.e. fished beyond sustainable levels. Furthermore, recent stock assessments, although data deficient, indicate low levels of reporting with increasing use of unsustainable fishing techniques within coastal and offshore waters, increased fishing effort which remains highly unregulated, including the use of illegal and ecologically harmful fishing gear, such as bottom trawl nets, small-mesh sized seine nets and the illicit use of dynamite fishing.
Currently no best practices or guidelines have been adopted in the coastal fisheries which result in destruction of coastal habitats.
This has a direct impact on the livelihoods of the coastal communities as they are directly dependent on such resources and rely heavily on coral reef, seagrass and mangrove associated species. These are important for coastal communities and provide protection from storm surges and are an excellent carbon sink, however, with continued poor practices the coastal communities in the SWIO region threaten local economies and livelihoods. Severe fish stock decline, high bycatch levels, and poor fishing practices threatens the recovery of coastal and marine ecosystems and food chains, with long-term implications for food security and coastal livelihoods.
Overfishing and poor fishing practices of specific species threatens the collapse of marine food chains and the destruction of critical coastal habitats such as mangroves and coral reefs. Degrading coastal and marine ecosystems in turn leads to reduced regulatory and regeneration capacity of the ocean (e.g., in terms of fish reproduction). Overfishing negatively impacts entire ecosystems by creating imbalances that weakens the food web’s resilience and by eroding other vulnerable and important marine life including species such as sea turtles and corals. As a result, species richness, abundance, distribution, genetic variation, and inter-population dynamics become negatively affected and entire ecosystems are altered by the loss of habitat. Degradation of critical coastal habitats such as mangrove, sea-grass beds and estuaries negatively impact reproduction and nursery sites, and consequently the recruitment of valuable fish stocks.
Among the key social implications of overfishing is reduced food security for coastal communities who rely on fisheries products. For example, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) practices significantly threatens selected fish stocks, distorts markets, undermines governance structures, and imposes considerable costs on livelihoods of coastal fishing communities. Existing international/regional instruments addressing IUU fishing have not been effective due to a lack of political will among the affected countries and a lack of capacity and resources to enable ratification and implementation. Additionally, the negative impact of overfishing and IUU fishing reduces economic returns by undermining productivity of fisheries and other marine-related sectors. In this regard, the economic loss is estimated at approximately US$400 million annually. The cost of stock rehabilitation for target species since 1980 has been estimated at US$19.3 billion.
The lack of infrastructure and monitoring and effective policies allow for unregulated coastal development, such as the assigning of several coastal cities, towns among other areas to be allotted for oil and gas development and coastal mining regardless of the significance it may hold ecologically and/or significance to coastal communities. Similarly, such developments bring about change in the natural environment which often go unmonitored. One such challenge is the changing climate, as small changes, may lead to increases in sea levels, aiding in increased rates of erosion and accretion and potentially impacting spawning and breeding season and patterns of commercially important fish stocks.
These needs fit perfectly with this year’s World Ocean Day theme - The Ocean: life and livelihoods. For us at WWF, we are proud of the foundation work we have carried out for decades in the SWIO region.
For the last five years, we have worked tirelessly to improve data collection on small-scale fisheries in Mozambique, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Kenya.
We have supported the government of Tanzania to set-up 67 community-based Beach Management Units (BMU) to enable coastal communities to manage and benefit from marine resources. We have also increased the engagement of SWIO countries in tuna fisheries management and development, including our financial and technical contribution in strengthening The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). This work is important to increase equity in benefit sharing between SWIO coastal states and Distant Water Fishing Nations, and secure effective and sustainable tuna fisheries management, and taking in account its highly transboundary migratory nature.
On tuna, we have supported a parallel process of enabling participation of coastal communities through establishment and strengthening of tuna-based and marine/fisheries national forums of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.
To build on this successful work and previous lessons, WWF with support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), will be implementing a 5-years (2021 to 2025) program in the SWIO region.
This program, Unlocking a Sustainable Blue Economy in SWIO, will be implemented in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Madagascar in collaboration with our partners including the national government agencies, Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), Regional Economic Commissions (RECs), local communities and CSOs.
The program aims to enable the sustainable management of fisheries in the SWIO region by tackling IUU fishing and creating the right conditions to transition to a sustainable blue economy.
The damage done to our oceans and coastal communities is already extensive. The need for action is urgent. It is our hope this work and that of our partners will shift ocean use towards sustainability.
On World Ocean Day 2021, join us as we launch WWF’s new “Blueprint for a Living Planet,” with four principles to guide integrated ocean and climate action to strengthen the mitigation, adaptation and resilience potential of marine and coastal ecosystems – and everything and everyone that depends on them. Together we can ensure our oceans continue to support Africa’s journey to wellbeing for people and the planet.
About the Authors:
Geofrey Mwanjela is a Technical Advisor for Regional Programmes in Africa for WWF
Umair Shahid is WWF’s SWIO Tuna Manager
With contributions from Tiana Ramahaleo (WWF-Madagascar), Jeff Worden (WWF-International), Paul Gallagher (WWF-International), Eduardo Videira (WWF-Mozambique), Edward Kimakwa (WWF-Kenya) and Alice Ruhweza (WWF-International).

Geofrey Mwanjela , Technical Advisor for Regional Programmes in Africa for WWF

Umair Shahid , WWF’s SWIO Tuna Manager