Protect our fish and a rich marine heritage
At the point where two of Kenya’s longest rivers - the Sabaki and Tana Rivers - meet, an injustice is happening right now. The injustice exposes a public interest issue that needs all our attention and action. Why are we not doing as much to protect our fish as we do to save the rhino or elephant?
Unregulated commercial trawling is the most destructive form of fishing Kenya’s 400-kilometre coastline. For this reason, there are specific pre-conditions all commercial fishing interests must comply with. Commercial boats cannot fish within five nautical miles of the shore and not in waters less than ten metres deep. Protective trawling gear that protect smaller fish, turtles and endangered species must be used and a Fisheries Officer always be aboard the vessel.
Over three years ago, a Presidential order banned foreign trawling vessels to increase local processing of fish from 2,500 to 18,000 tonnes and accelerate the national blue economy. The Navy and other Government agencies were ordered to intercept illegal trawling vessels before their haul ends up in East Asia and elsewhere. Hong Kong customs officers recently seized more than 3 tonnes of dried guitarfish fins in a single shipment worth US$ 593,000 from West Africa.
Article 69 of the constitution obligates the state to protect our wildlife and environment against harmful practises that threaten marine biodiversity. The Fisheries Management Development Act (2016) sets hefty Kshs fifty million fines or five years imprisonment for breaking the law. Empowered by these laws are thousands of state officers who bear primary responsibility for wildlife protection and public awareness. The criminal justice system is also mandated to investigate, prosecute, convict, fine or jail offenders.
That illegal trawling is happening must concern us. Two months ago, MV Roberto 5ZZB was caught shrimp trawling well within the restricted range and in shallow waters of Kipini, Tana River. On board were 43 baby sharks as well as rays and guitarfish - both endangered species - but no Fisheries Officer. Spooked by an initial investigation by Kenya Wildlife Services, the vessel fled to Malindi and continued to trawl in the Ungwana bay. Honorary Warden Raabia Hawa and KWS officers boarded the boat there and seized the haul. Following investigations, both the Director of Public Prosecutions file and the boat’s owner Ittica Ltd are expected in court soon.
Honorary Wardens like Raabia Hawa are typically public citizens committed to conserve and promote our wildlife. Appointed by the Wildlife and Tourism Cabinet Secretary, there are several of them. Far from the glare of media cameras and threatened constantly by poachers and traffickers, the more courageous of them catch poachers and de-snare traps set to rob our national heritage.
The wanton destruction of marine life threatens the sustainability of the marine ecosystem and communities living in Kipini and elsewhere. Weak regulation and poor legal enforcement coupled with active trawling with impunity will see more species rapidly disappear from our marine coastline. The current Kshs 2 billion fishing industry has the capacity to grow to Kshs 450 billion if we invest in it.
If we also protect it, we could stop the Kshs 10 billion lost to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. We must do more to protect both our marine life and the marine protectors.
This opinion was first published in the Sunday Standard, 13 June 2021