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As a light aircraft overflies the picturesque Watamu peninsula in Malindi, a gang of about 40 fishermen pulls a large net from the sea.

Nothing out of the ordinary to the observers on the plane, even after circling the area several times.
As a light aircraft overflies the picturesque Watamu peninsula in Malindi, a gang of about 40 fishermen pulls a large net from the sea.

Nothing out of the ordinary to the observers on the plane, even after circling the area several times.

But these are no ordinary fishermen. They are among the three ring netters operating in Watamu.

Despite their seemingly small number, the economic and environmental impact has been enormous, raising a wave of complaints and concerns.

Later, the fishermen gather their catch ready to load it onto refrigerated trucks which transport the fish to Mombasa.

Along the beach, some fishmongers mill around the trucks with baskets and money at the ready to buy the leftovers for their clientele in the local villages.

It is a blessing to them that they can buy a large catch at a highly affordable price.

Not far away from this booming business, Mr Hamisi Hamza, in his 60s, is making a canoe from a mango tree trunk. He owns two canoes but over the last few months, business has been dismal.

He and his colleagues have stopped going fishing due to the dwindling returns and have taken to other activities to make ends meet.

Saturated market

“In the not so distant past I used to get up to 80kg of fish from a one-night expedition and would even transport the fish to Mombasa. Now I hardly get enough for my domestic needs.

“But it is not just about depletion of fish stocks and being pushed out of our grounds by the ring net fishers. They have also saturated the market such that the prices are very low and if one has to hire a canoe he may not get anything after selling the catch,” Mr Hamza said.

But according to the Ministry of Fisheries Development, saturation of the market is an indication of an increased catch, and the growth of the industry.

The villagers have however added an interesting twist to the issue which the Fisheries director in charge of the Coast region, Mrs Martha Mukira, says her officers are investigating as part of the socio-economic study on ring net fishing.

The rich fishermen are accused of targeting women and girls, showering them with money and luring them into sex.

“They have pushed us out of work and now they are taking our women as well because most of us have been impoverished. The result is an increase in cases of teenage pregnancies and break-up of families,” says Mr Wilson Mramba.

Ring nets are a thorny issue, which has sucked in various players, including the Fisheries department, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), sports fishermen and environmental lobby groups.

Ring net fishery is believed to originated from the Tanzanian islands of Pemba and Zanzibar and introduced to the Kenyan Coast in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mainly in Vanga and Gazi.

Ring nets are long continuous stretches of netting measuring about 300m in length and set depth of about 25 to 30 metres. They are used to encircle a school of fish, usually in the deep sea waters outside the reef. The gear is conveniently operated by motorboats using crews of between 30 and 40 fishermen.

Although the Fisheries ministry agrees that the introduction of ring nets was done in a hurry without a management plan, leading to conflicts, Mrs Mukira says the fishing method should be promoted because of the returns.

“We know that there is conflict, especially with regard to resource utilisation, but our reports indicate that the ring netters are fishing in designated areas beyond the reef.

Breeding grounds

“However, the ministry does not have the resources to monitor the fishermen to ensure that they comply with the law. Ring netting is commercial fishing and should be done over 15 nautical miles from the land so that it does not interfere with the ordinary fishermen and fish breeding grounds,” she says.

Statistics, she says, indicate that while the coastal waters, which extend up to over 300 nautical miles, have the potential to produce about 150,000 tonnes of fish per year, fishermen can only get between 6,000 and 7, 000 tonnes.

But KWS, which is mandated to oversee marine protected areas and marine reserves, says the ring net fishers are not abiding by the law.

KWS assistant director in charge of Coast region, Simon Gitau says the ring netters are targeting areas that are not meant for commercial fishing.

“They are even going to fish in areas along the reef where we have diving sites for tourists who pay to see the beautiful underwater scenery. The divers bring in a lot of revenue, but at times they dive only to see nets entangled on corals.

KWS has no problem with ring nets so long as they do not fish within the protected areas,” Mr Gitau says.

There is a surveillance boat from Shimoni to Watamu but even with that it is not easy to confront a group of about 40 fishermen in the sea because it is risky.

The Kenya Association of Sea Anglers, the organisation that coordinates sport fishing along the Kenyan Coast, says the ring net has become a major issue and as serious as the prawn trawling.

In a letter to the minister for Fisheries Development dated February 10, association chairman Simon Hemphil said the conflict was being portrayed as being between rich Europeans and poor Africans.

A fully loaded boat and equipment can cost up to about Sh3 million and then there is the crew of about 40 people who have to be paid on a daily basis.

But the ring net owners have come out strongly defending their business, saying that they follow what has been laid down by the government and describing the complaints as mere rivalry.

“We have increased the number of kilos through the fishing method and this has in turn helped to stabilise the fish prices, especially for the local fishmongers. In fact, the government should support such ventures to help fully exploit the vast marine resources,” says Abud Hassan, a ring net owner in Watamu.

Speaking on behalf of the ring netters Mr Hassan said they had installed global positioning systems as required by the ministry and all the records of their movements can be traced.