Dugongs are slow-moving, large, cow-like creatures that like to spend their days munching on sea grass while occasionally luring ancient mariners to their doom by pretending to be mermaids. In Mozambique, and especially during the civil war, dugongs were hunted for their meat, much as the Australian Aboriginal population does. After all, a dugong can feed an extended family for many days, even weeks.
While on a story for African Diver Magazine in the Bazaruto archipelago investigating conservation efforts to conserve a dwindling population of large sanguine, sea grass-eating mammals known as dugongs, I came to learn of the artisanal fishing people of the Mozambican coastline and their struggle to survive.
Dugongs used to be frequent sightings in the Inhambane area but have been fished out and are no longer seen there.
This is a common story throughout Mozambique and everyone I spoke to told me that the dugong population had been decimated by artisanal fishermen who caught and ate anything “that moved in the sea”.
Although Dugongs are now protected in Mozambique, over-fishing, illegal fishing, gill netting and environmental encroachment severely impact on dugongs and pretty much all marine life in Mozambique.
In November of 2010 I flew into Vilanculos, the busy and growing town that is the Archipelago’s nerve centre. After the chilly air-conditioned interior of the plane, the furnace blast of hot Mozambican air that slapped me through the face as I disembarked was welcoming and a perfect reminder of what is special about being a visitor to any of Mozambique’s shores.
Later, at my lodge, I looked out onto the Archipelago’s islands marooned in a calm shallow sea. Blue variations of colour characterised the shallows, deep channels and sea grass beds in front of me. Here and there dhow’s, manned by artisanal fishermen, slowly tacked in the space between the shimmering blue water and the powdery blue sky. It was low tide and moored boats lay flaccid on the sandbanks. Artisanal fishermen waded the shallows looking for fish and crabs. A lone dog prowled the water line inspecting, sniffing and searching. A young boy walked past, in his hand 20 or 30 small fish strung together on a line.
I made my way down the dunes to the beach. Past tethered goats and treading a well-worn path I accessed the beach amidst several fishermen repairing a net; a long net – at least 200 metres in length and noticed that where they were working is a dhow and boat building area … on the beach and complete with hand-made tools.
The littoral zone I wandered was pooled with oily patches of water (from aged and ailing outboard motors) marooned by the retreating tide. Great piles of dead sea-grass lined the high tide mark and dhows lay limply on their keels awaiting the incoming tide. Here and there, locals examined the catch of the artisanal fishermen I saw wading the shallows earlier. On closer inspection, I discovered that the main catch is crab with an occasional dogfish or sea cucumber. And it became clear that their method of catching is a long steel spear with a wickedly sharp barb.
Later, in the bar, I met several expatriate South Africans. South Africa’s SASOL has made a huge investment to exploit natural gas in the area and there is a huge expatriate workforce on the ground. Other expatriates are more entrepreneurial: farmers, lodge owners, construction and building contractors, hardware suppliers … Vilanculos seems to be on the precipice of a boom and everyone wants to be a part of it.
So in the space of an afternoon and evening I’d already seen indications of what I’d told about, having ticked off over-fishing (I noticed curried crab on the menu) and, now, environmental encroachment. Development was alive and kicking in Mozambique.
Out on the water, deep in the archipelago and several kilometres from any shores, I spent time with a family of artisanal fishers as they pulled in their nets.
It was an all-family affair. There were two dhow’s, each filled with women, children and men. More women and men were in the water, standing on a low-tide sandbank, hauling a 200-odd metre net. It took everyone’s efforts to bring it in. I counted 12 people initially pulling on the net and as it got closer, everyone joined in the effort. The net bumped and dragged across the shallow seabed trapping everything in its path and mowing the sea-grass to a short stubble.
As the net got closer to the boat, several of the men dived in to keep the net’s shape so that none of the catch spilled out. It was an arduous task and the net was frightfully empty. When they pulled the net into the boat I saw several Bonito and squid, a baby marbled ray and a remora, as well as a small bucket-load of baitfish. This was their reward after several hours of back-breaking work.
Now October to December is the closed season for netting in the archipelago in order to allow fish stocks to breed and rejuvenate. Excellent conservation thinking and protocols but not really something people who live off the sea can really implement. So they carry on their netting far from authoritarian reach and feed their families.
These very same nets however, often catch dugong who generally drown in the nets, being as they’re mammals. I saw photographs of a female dugong that had washed up on the Vilanculos beach. Her breasts were full with milk but her calf was nowhere to be seen. There was no visible cause of death and an autopsy was conducted (she was not pregnant) with “natural causes” being cited as the cause of death.
Of course she could have drowned in a net and been released by the scared fishermen to wash away in the current.But no-one’s talking and we will never know. Nor will we know about her baby.
The Bazaruto Archipelago is a microcosm of the bigger picture, facing planet Earth. Big business finds resources to exploit and this brings entrepreneurs who find business opportunities. Both offer employment. Both attract job seekers. Beautiful places attract tourists. All need food. All impact the environment. All are connected. The marine animals and the artisanal fishermen are a small string in a complex web of life and right now humans are straining the web.
The fisher folk have rights too and it is all too easy to criticise them and their methods. They too need to eat and it is unfair to ban them from fishing or criticise their methods when tourists charter fishing boats to catch game fish off the islands. The Bazaruto Archipelago (and most of the Mozambican coastline) is a Mecca for big game anglers and the message being sent to locals by these anglers exploiting the fish stocks is simply that there’s plenty of fish in the ocean.
All the lodges in the Archipelago have an extensive seafood menu – tourists expect to eat fresh fish when holidaying on the coast and Mozambique is no exception. And the fish, crab, prawns and crayfish seen on the menu is sourced and purchased mainly from local artisanal fishermen.
The crab fisherman seen in the photograph accompanying this article earns 2 500 Meticals (local currency) per month. A bag of rice which will feed his family of 5 in a month costs him 1 200 Meticals. So he supplements his income by crabbing every day; selling the crabs to the local lodges.
And so the forces of demand and supply play out their game in Vilanculos and the only loser in the game currently is the marine environment
Throughout my travels in Mozambique I have heard countless stories of the exploitation of fishing by local artisanal fishermen. From sharks and mantas and mobulas to reef fish. And I have heard criticism about every method of fishing used by local fishermen. But the local fishermen are only pawns in the game. The Chinese (shark fins and manta gills), the tourist, the expatriates, the anglers and the divers … we are all guilty of exploitation regardless of whether it is the fish we catch, the fish we eat or the roads we drive on in Mozambique. It inflames me to listen to lodge owners, expatriates, anglers and divers criticising the local fishing practices while munching their way through a seafood platter. We are part of the problem … and the solution.