An international crackdown on piracy in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) in recent years has successfully reduced the number of Somali attacks. Ironically, this has left East African waters more vulnerable than ever, with foreign fishing in Kenya becoming a major issue.
The presence of Somali piracy along the East African coast, which peaked in 2011, doubled as a deterrent to international fishing vessels in the WIO. Declining piracy has exposed Kenya, one of Somalia’s neighboring countries, to increasing threats to its vulnerable offshore waters. Foreign fishing fleets from East Asia and Europe are now descending on the unprotected waters of Kenya’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), causing the country to lose millions of dollars to illegal fishing activities.
Recent research by Fisheries Center Research Reports (FCRR) shows that these foreign fishing fleets have become a significant source of unreported catch, raising concerns about food security in Kenya.
Foreign Fishing in Kenya
The resource-rich waters of the East African coast have not gone unnoticed, as evident in the increasing levels of foreign fishing in Kenya.
Kenya’s waters are exploited by fleets from countries including Seychelles, Mayotte, Spain, France, Italy, China and Taiwan. In 2014, Kenya licensed 44 foreign fishing vessels to fish in its EEZ. It is likely that this figure saw an increase in the subsequent years due to the growing maritime stability. However, lack of transparency is still a major issue and the government is yet to publish any updated data on foreign fishing licenses since then. In addition, foreign vessels do not always declare their catches despite a legal requirement to do so. Some research estimates that foreign fishing catch is up to 68,000 tonnes every year, which is already over 80% of the estimated potential of Kenya’s offshore fisheries.
Local fishers have also reported seeing foreign trawlers fishing in shallow inshore waters at night, adding extra pressure to the already strained coastal reef fisheries.
Reports suggest that illegal foreign fishing in Kenya, i.e. catch by unlicensed vessels, costs the country an estimated $100 million per year. Although, reliable information on illegal fishing is severely lacking. As such, the illegal foreign catch in Kenya’s EEZ is likely even higher than current estimates indicate.
Kenya’s Blue Economy Agenda
Marine fisheries are crucial to food security and livelihoods in Kenya’s coastal communities. Inequality remains high in the country, with coastal communities experiencing a poverty rate of up to 62% compared to the national average of 36%. This means that these communities rely heavily on natural local resources such as fish for nutrition and income.
Most local fishers in Kenya use simple, non-motorized vessels to fish in sheltered waters close to shore. There are around 14,000 of these small-scale fishers along the coast and their catches contribute 98% of the total marine catch in the country. This also means that inshore ecosystems experience substantial fishing pressure. Overfishing of these ecosystems has resulted in drastic declines in reef fish abundance, leaving coastal livelihood in jeopardy.
Although recent fisheries management changes are helping in the gradual recovery of reef ecosystems, Kenya’s marine fisheries remain largely small-scale. As a result, inshore ecosystems continue to bear the brunt of fishing intensity, while rich offshore resources stay unexploited.
Kenya lies within the productive tuna belt of the WIO, where 20% of the world’s tuna catch originates. Based on estimates, the country’s offshore fishery potential is at 150,000 tonnes per year. Despite this, reports suggest that Kenya’s total marine catch is only 24,000 tonnes, with tuna species making up less than 2%.
To harness this “untapped potential”, the Kenyan government intends to expand the country’s coastal, small-scale fisheries by enhancing its domestic capacity for industrial tuna production and trade. By developing fisheries-related infrastructure and capabilities, a key priority in Kenya Vision 2030, the country hopes to better utilize ocean resources to support social and economic development. This economic plan is known as the ‘blue economy’.
Safeguarding Offshore Waters
A major reason for the prevalence of illegal fishing in Kenya’s waters is the lack of monitoring, surveillance and enforcement capacity. Kenya’s coast guard has a single vessel, the MV Doria, and despite numerous accounts of illegal fishing, there has never been an arrest.
Recent advances in satellite tracking technology provide an opportunity for Kenya to improve the detection and apprehension of vessels fishing illegally in its waters. Neighboring countries like Tanzania are demonstrating that satellite tracking systems alongside a well-resourced coast guard and international partnerships with enabling Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) can deter illegal fishing vessels.
According to the reports, Kenya has the potential to enhance its food security, employment opportunities and economic development, as well as increase its share in the global blue economy by replacing foreign fishing in its EEZ with the sustainable expansion of domestic fishery.
– Amy McAlpine