How unsustainable fishing threatens fish stocks in Mafia


Fishermen on Mafia Island empty their days catch onto a cooler box that will be shipped to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania for sale and consumption.Photo | Courtesy of WWF

What you need to know:

  • Mafia Island's tourism thrives, but its fishing industry suffers from unsustainable practices. Balancing economic benefits with resource conservation is crucial.

Dar es Salaam. Mafia Island entices first-time visitors with a mesmerising spectacle—a luminous glow on the horizon, signalling their approach to Kilindoni Port.

However, the lights provide additional information that there are ongoing unsustainable fishing practices in the area.

The practice involves the use of lamps powered by generators, which is detrimental to the subsector’s prosperity and the blue economy in general. “The light from the lamps powered by generators is extremely white as compared to those installed at the Kilindoni Port. The light usually scares ocean creatures, including fish that tend to run away to deep sea waters or far away from the influence of the intensity,” remarks Mr Abdullah Malick, a resident of the island. “Such practices have adversely affected fishing on the island, hence recording a tremendous decline in the volume of fish as compared to previous years,” he told this reporter during his recent tour of the island.

A 62-year-old resident, Ms Hawa Salumu, said the place had plenty of fish and sardines between the years 2000 and 2005, respectively, noting that things have worsened now.

Dealers have been processing an average of 80 to 100 buckets of sardines every day, but the amount has decreased to between 30 and 50 per day due to the insufficient amount that fishermen currently catch. “Much has to be done in this area because I don’t believe the provision of modern fishing gear will change and improve the situation,” she said. Another resident, Mr Ally Mohamed Suleyman, 66, said the number of fishermen has significantly increased due to the massive investment in canoes powered by engines, transforming fishing activities in the area. He said the use of modern lamps makes the whole ocean look like daytime, saying the move adversely affects the access of fish on the island.

“Probably, the provision of modern fishing gear will enable fishermen to reach deep sea and increase the volume of fish and sardine catch, hence significantly benefiting from the country’s blue economy,” he said. For his part, fisherman Thomas Nyaku said frequent storms had been adversely affecting the access of fish on the island, noting that ocean serenity is essential as it is directly linked to fishing efficiency. “Poor fishing gear is an area of concern. Efforts made by the government in Mwanza and Kilwa Kivinje, where fishermen have been provided with modern fishing gear, should be replicated for fishermen in Mafia,” he suggested.

Mr Said Mohamed, also a fisherman in the area of Kilindoni, said improved fishing technology and fish demand, as well as the number of vessels engaged in fishing activities, have seriously reduced the volume of fish from the island. Between 2000 and 2014, fishermen used to get Sh150,000 to Sh200,000 after trading fish during auctions per day, but currently, the amount has drastically declined, said Mr Mohamed.

“There are several species of fish that are missing nowadays, including the salawanzi, which is expensive on the market. Mostly, we remain with sardines only,” he remarked.

“To restore fish breeding and increase their number in the ocean, lighting sources powered by generators should be completely abolished,” he suggested, noting that the ban should be a countrywide measure.

However, reports from Mafia District Council show an increase in the volume of fish traded in the district in the last six years. The volume in tonnes in each respective year into bracket is: 4,088.4 (2017/18); 4,473.0 (2018/19); 4,682.3 (2019/20); 4,881.1 (2020/21); 5,242.5 (2021/22); and 5,892.2 (2022/23).

“The increase in volume contravenes stakeholders concern that unsustainable fishing methods have led to a decrease in the volume of fish. This is because the council has strengthened record-keeping in the sub-sector, which is the second largest source of income generation on the island after tourism,” said the council senior officer under anonymity. Mafia District Commissioner Zephania Sumaye, who has been assigned another workstation in the recent reshuffle of district commissioners made by President Samia Suluhu Hassan, said no research has been conducted by the government to establish the impacts of lighting lamps powered by generators.

“It isn’t a huge concern because no fisherman has reported being aggrieved by what takes place in the ocean. However, no specific strategy is required to address the matter, whenever required,” he said.

“Currently, we are working on alternative livelihood methods to prevent the majority of the youth from considering fishing as a sole income-generating activity on the island. Also, despite fishing being an untapped resource, time comes when it is depleted,” he added.

However, the director of fisheries at the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries, Prof Mohamed Sheikh, said the government was aware of the presence of unsustainable practices involving the use of lamps powered by generators, threatening the country’s benefits from the blue economy.

“The use of generators in lighting lamps during fishing is not allowed, as clearly explained in the regulations,” he said on the phone.

He said only fishing lamps at certain frequencies are allowed. The use of uncertified lamps affects fish habitat and the general ecology.

“Following research conducted by the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (Tafiri) on the use of fishing lamps on Lake Victoria, we have approved a maximum of 10 watt lamps to be used during the fishing activities,” said Prof Sheikh.

“We have also tasked Tafiri to proceed with the second phase of the research, whose findings will enable us to prepare and come up with guidelines on the use of fishing lamps in the Tanzania Mainland water bodies,” he added.

He reminded fishermen to abide by regulations and directives given by fisheries officers regarding the use of appropriate fishing lamps and specifications that have been approved by authorities.

Further, he said the ministry has been encouraging the use of solar power in fishing activities, noting that generators not only cause light pollution but also oil spillover.

“Fishermen have the idea that powerful lights will provide them with high output. But, on the contrary, unintended species other than sardines, immature, and breeders are all netted during the process, therefore adversely affecting fishing sustainability and the government’s plan to benefit from the country’s blue economy initiative,” he said.

Supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation