Whispers of a dynamite fishing witness

I am surprised….I am afraid, but residents say there is nothing to fear; they are used to it. Now there is serious beach erosion. Some people say the corrals that used to slacken the force of the sea waves have been destroyed by dynamite fishing.

The strong waves now drive straight to the shore and I am afraid our house will be pulled down by beach erosion very soon,” explains a resident of Mtwara town who did not want her name published. 

Dynamite fishing is a serious problem in Mtwara region and while Msanga Mkuu steals the limelight, other areas like Ranzi, Majau and Naumbu are also infamous for the crime. According to some residents, the crime is committed openly with the knowledge of law enforcers but it seems no authority is willing to take stern measures to end the crime.

Dadi Ahmad Ibrahim, a resident of Mikindani township has been a fisherman since 1991, using line and hook. His daily income varies between 13,000/- and 30,000/- but he admits that the size of the catch has been going down over the years. He attributes this to groups of people who blow up corrals in order to manufacture lime which they sell as building material.

The fisherman adds that destroying the corrals also leads to destruction of seagrass. “Corrals are homes of fish and other marine creatures. Seagrass is their food and when these two are destroyed, the fish have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. They shift to other areas far away from here where it is safe for them,” explains Ibrahim. 

But he also acknowledges the seriousness of the dynamite fishing problem. "Dynamite fishing is a big problem in this area even to honest fishermen like me. When I see fishermen who use dynamite I have to run away because they have deadly weapons and will stop at nothing. They are responsible for the reduced fish catch that we are experiencing now,” he adds. 

On another note, Ibrahim tells members of the Journalist’s Environmental Association of Tanzania (JET) who is actually involved in dynamite fishing. “I know Dynamite fishing is illegal, but I am 100 per cent sure that those who are engaged in this crime had their under-size nets confiscated. So since they don’t have other means of getting some income they turn to dynamite fishing.” Many residents of Mikindani depend on fishing for their lives.

The current situation indicates that people will have to look for alternative sources of income as fishing becomes unreliable and too uneconomic to guarantee them some living.  Abbas Salum Waziri is a fishmonger who is also a member of Msanga Mkuu Beach Management Unit (BMU).

The units are responsible for, among other things, to collect data on fish catches landed; the type of fish caught and their average size as well as deal with fishermen using illegal fishing methods. He too admits that there is a significant reduction in the fishcath landed at Msanga Mkuu and other sites in the past five years mainly due to environmental destruction caused by illegal fishing methods.

He notes that while the average catch for a fisher man was about 60kgs five years ago, today it has gone down to about 10kgs. “The major problem is dynamite fishing. It is very destructive because it kills fish most of which does not land on anyone’s plate, it destroys corals, seaweed and other types of seagrass which are important for marine life. But it is also bad for the fishermen themselves- some of them get killed while others lose their limbs,” he explains. 

He too believes that the ban on undersize fishing nets has fuelled dynamite fishing. “Those who had their nets confiscated became jobless; they had no regular income. They thus decided to engage in this illegal fishing method.”  Jesse Mlaki, Deputy Fisheries Officer for Mtwara-Mikindani Town Council sees the dynamite fishing problem being very serious in the council area itself and in Mtwara Rural District due to a number of loose ends in the fisheries management system.

“Fisheries officers from the Council and the District together with marine police, the fisheries surveillance unit and the Mnazi Bay Ruvuma Estuary Marine Park(MBREMP) conduct patrols  in order to nab dynamite fishers but these patrols are too isolated to have any significant impact. Two patrols every six months are not enough,” he says.

Another weakness is the ease with which the criminals lay their hands on explosives. He says that although there are many illegal fishermen who now make their own explosives, there are also those who still use TNT. "We don’t have a legislation that prohibits a person from possessing locally made explosives or world known explosives like TNT.

This laxity has fuelled the use of explosive sin fishing,” he notes, adding that the government has to be very strict when it comes to importation, storage, distribution and use of explosives if dynamite fishing is to be stopped. Mlaki also looks at the judiciary as one of the loose ends that needs tightening if the war against dynamite fishing is to be won.

He argues that very often suspected dynamite fishers who are found guilty are given lenient sentences while others are acquitted when there is damning evidence against them. “Some of those convicted are ordered to pay fines which of course they do very easily. These sentences are not deterrent and only allow such criminals to engage in dynamite fishing more vigorously.”

The fisheries officer also notes that sometimes cases take up to six months before judgement is passed, a situation which discourages law enforcers and puts their lives at risk.   WWF – Tanzania has been conducting the Community Development and Sustainable Management of Resources project in 17 villages of Mtwara Rural district. The project which focuses on conservation of the environment and promotion of sustainable community livelihoods, among others, has been running for four years and is set to run for another year.

Theckla Myovela who leads the implementation of the project told visiting JET members that  in addressing the problem of dynamite fishing the project has helped communities establish a Fishers Union whose responsibility is to fight dynamite fishing and other illegal fishing methods. Members of the union, she says, have been educated on the importance of conserving the environment in general and the need for sustainable use of fisheries and other marine resources in particular.

Following capacity building in various aspects the 1,000 member- strong Union now coordinates activities of the various fishermen and other users of marine and coastal resources in the communities. “The Union has also eased communication and helps to improve relationships between fishing communities, the government and the Marine Park authorities.

And through the Union, the community now has the onus of conserving and protecting marine and coastal resources while ensuring that they are used sustainably because they see the benefits and they know how they stand to suffer if the same are destroyed or unsustainably harvested.” She adds that one condition for membership to the Union is that an individual or their family should not be involved in dynamite or any other forms of illegal fishing. 

Five years of working with communities to conserve the environment and natural resources while improving their livelihoods has identified several challenges without which success would have been conspicuous. Yet dynamite fishing still appears to be insurmountable problem in Mtwara-Mikindani Town Council as well as in Mtwara Rural District. 

Ms Myovela sees state organs not acting fast enough and they are not transparent in handling dynamite cases. “The police, for example, sometimes release suspects without taking them to court even when the evidence is overwhelming.  The courts also take a long time to conclude cases and when they do, the sentences are too weak to be deterrent.

This creates mistrust and enmity between honest members of the community and dynamite fishers.” Another challenge is the risk involved in confronting dynamite fishers. “They are equipped with deadly weapons and are ready to kill when things come to worse,” she notes. Myovela however differs with people who claim that fishermen continue to engage in dynamite fishing because their undersize nets were confiscated and they had no alternative source of income.”

I believe lack of modern fishing gear has not fuelled dynamite fishing. The Marine Park authorities gave two boats with motors and fishing nets to two communities in order to help them get a better catch. Surprisingly these communities stashed the nets in their storerooms and use the boats to ferry people from one village to another. I think the greed for quick money is what makes them go for dynamite fishing,” she explains.

There is no doubt that dynamite fishing is a problem not only for communities in Mtwara region for all coastal communities. It is a national problem. Although various groups are doing all they can to stop the crime, none of them seems to have got the right solution, a situation which calls for efforts and new measures to deal with the challenges.

“I think we should retrace our steps and let the navy deal with these criminals. When Fatuma Mikidadi was the DC for Mtwara Rural District, she controlled the situation because she used the navy to patrol the sea. During her time, there were no cases of dynamite fishing but soon after she left, the situation has grown out of hand,” explains Nasoro Mijai, a fisherman at Msanga Mkuu landing site.

On his part, Acting Senior Conservationist for MBREMP, Redfrad Ngowo suggests that the relevant state organs should deliver as one. Their activities should be coordinated as opposed to the current situation where each department acts as it deems fit without due consideration of what is happening in other departments which also have a role to play in eliminating the dynamite fishing scandal.

“But it is also important for the government to invest in the management of marine and coastal resources instead of depending on foreign partners and the international community. These are our resources and we must meet the cost of their sustainable management,” he stresses.

Ngowo also highlighted the problem of politicians interfering with conservation, saying that there will be little achievement where politicians discourage experts to do their work for their personal gains. “This is particularly the case when elections are about to be conducted. It is discouraging and brings down to zero all the work that has been done in years,” he noted.

His opinion was supported by Deputy Fisheries Officer Jesse Mlaki who conceded that political interference is actually promoting dynamite fishing almost all the time but it gets worse when there are elections. “They say we should not arrest their voters. Sometimes when we are ready to conduct an operation we are told to withhold because it might affect the interest of a certain politician.

Politicians are quite a big problem when it comes to stopping dynamite fishing,” he explains. When asked about   political hands tainting the work of WWF and other institutions in fighting   dynamite fishing, Ms Myovela conceded that there is indeed interference from politicians, “…but I am not well placed to give details.”  

Dynamite fishing has continued to tarnish the image of Tanzania in international circles particularly because no other country along the Indian Ocean coast in Eastern Africa is experiencing this problem. It is possible to get a lasting solution to the problem but the government lacks the will to do it.

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