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Six days a week, Mercy Mganga is on the phone by 6:00 a.m. A fishmonger based on the scenic Bamburi beach in Mombasa, Kenya, Mganga is calling fishermen along the country’s eastern coastline to get updates on their catches. She needs to buy enough fish to satisfy her customers’ daily orders and routinely calls fishermen at landing sites as far as 70 kilometers away in hopes of securing between 50 and 100 kilograms of fish, slightly more on a busy day. The daily routine is crucial, she says: “The prospect of coming back empty-handed is big.”
Fish scarcity is a daily reality faced by Mganga and hundreds of other Kenyan fishmongers. It’s a problem that is exacerbated by illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is rampant in Kenya and throughout much of Africa.
Recently, however, the Kenyan government announced that the November 2018 creation of the Kenya Coast Guard Service (KCGS) has led to a reduction in IUU fishing and a doubling of fish stocks in Kenyan waters.
According to the report, the huge increase in the number of fish in the water is showing up in the volume of catch being legally landed. At one site, Liwatoni Fisheries Complex, landings have risen by more than 155,000 tonnes to 400,000 tonnes over a period of six months.
Micheni Ntiba, the principal secretary of the Kenya Fisheries Service, a government agency, is skeptical of the claim that the coast guard has had such a dramatic effect on fish stocks in such a short time and says the report is unscientific, though he has refused to comment further on the matter.
Whether the claimed increases can be seen on the ground depends on whom you ask.
Goodluck Mbaga, owner of a fishing dhow and an official with the Vipingo beach management committee, says his catch has improved in recent months from an average of 20 kilograms a day to 40.
“Our fishermen may not know why they are getting improved catch in recent times, but I believe it’s because the coast guard has scared off foreign vessels from our waters,” Mbaga says, adding that similar gains are evident along the southern Kenya coast.
Mganga is less convinced: “Maybe it has had this impact,” she says. “But for traders like me, nothing has changed. The scarcity is as bad as ever, perhaps because we rely on local artisanal fishermen.” She suggests that if the coast guard monitoring has led to more fish, it’s likely commercial trawlers who are benefitting.
While some doubt the KCGS’s recent claims, experts are confident the coast guard will, at least eventually, bring some of the changes it is reporting.
Nina Wambiji, assistant director for marine fisheries at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, says that having a coast guard is important for securing Kenya’s territorial waters to ensure fisheries resources are well managed. Somalia, for instance, had some 2.5 million tonnes of fish stolen by foreign industrial fleets between 1950 and 2015.
In the long term, says Wambiji, “policing may … contribute to higher landings when it eliminates the IUU fisheries.” When that happens, both artisanal and commercial vessels will benefit from the coast guard’s efforts to protect Kenya’s territorial waters and its exclusive economic zone, she adds.
Harrison Charo Karisa, the director for Egypt and Nigeria for WorldFish, a nonprofit research organization, agrees. “By removing illegal fishers who often fish in protected areas and use illegal gear, it becomes easier for stocks to recover and for vessels to report higher catches.”
Most African countries, however, cannot afford the cost of policing their waters against poaching by vessels from distant nations, Karisa says.
“IUU is a global problem costing an estimated US $2.3-billion in losses and African countries bear the brunt of this loss,” Karisa says.