Sea change: The Mozambican fisherman turning farmers to protect the ocean

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How would you feel if I asked you to quit your job without giving you any other way of earning money to feed your family? Sounds harsh, right? 

But if your 'job' is threatening the entire marine ecosystem - and the food source your community relies on to survive - who should be responsible for finding an alternative means of income for you when there’s pressure for you to stop working? Melissa Hobson reports on a new initiative persuading fishermen to turn to farming.

Mel Hobson 1 August 2018

We all know our oceans are under threat. But plastic pollution - which gets the majority of the press attention when it comes to ocean conservation - is not the only issue. 

In the coastal communities of many developing countries, people rely almost entirely on the ocean for their food and livelihoods. With little understanding about the threat of overfishing, they often use destructive, indiscriminate artisanal fishing methods to catch as much fish as they can to make ends meet.

Mr Igreja was one of these fisherman - a self-proclaimed 'big man' in the fishing community who not only owned several gill nets but also sourced nets from the city for other fishermen in the village. 

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Overfishing is killing off juvenile fishing stocks and causing larger fish species numbers to plummet

Gill nets are a huge problem because they are indiscriminate and often catch many species other than the ones being targeted. This means endangered species such as manta rays or turtles, for example, could get caught in the nets and killed as accidental bycatch. What’s more, as the mesh size can be very small, many juvenile fish are also caught before they reach reproductive age, putting a huge strain on future fish stocks. 

The Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) - a marine conservation NGO - is trying to address this issue head on. 

When the charity was founded in 2009, its main focus was on research into the megafauna (or 'ocean giants') along the coastline of Mozambique. After a time the co-founders, Andrea Marshall and Simon Pierce, realised there must be a link between the huge decline in sightings of manta rays and whale sharks and observational evidence that the numbers of mantas being caught by local fishermen were far greater than the populations could sustain. 

They decided the only way for them to solve this problem would be to engage with the community; helping them understand that protecting the ocean is not only key to the survival of the species but also to their future and that of their children and grandchildren.

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The Marine Megafauna Foundation is dedicated to working with fishermen to try and find alternative jobs for them to so they can reduce their reliance on the ocean

Mr Igreja talked me through how his 'friendship' - as he affectionately calls the relationship - with MMF began: “MMF approached myself and the other gill net fishermen and invited us to a meeting. At that time, we were really focused on fishing and I was a big intermediary with contacts in Maputo to buy the nets for the other fishermen. 

MMF wanted us to reduce our activities so they explained to us the importance of protecting marine life and the ecosystem. They helped us to understand that by not fishing every day, we could give the young fish a chance to grow up and reproduce so there will still be fish left for future generations to feed their families.”

Understanding the needs of the community was critical for this project. 

In developed countries, it’s easy for us to preach about the importance of protecting the ocean when we don’t face a daily struggle for food and nutrition just to survive. 

While there was a real need to engage the local community in conserving its local resources, telling people to 'just stop fishing' was not a feasible solution; they had few, if any, other means of income and, having fished from a young age, many of them didn’t know how to do anything else. 

"If the project is profitable enough to cover my costs and support my family, I will give up fishing altogether"

MMF’s Alternative Livelihoods project came about when the charity realised locals needed help finding other ways of earning money if they were to reduce or give up fishing. 

Mr Igreja is one of the first fishermen to trial the project and is focusing on agriculture. 

He told me: “We discussed the problem with MMF and agreed that it was important that we only went fishing once a day instead of twice. 

At that meeting, the alternative livelihood project was introduced and we identified the other types of work we could do: such as scuba diving, vegetable farming and pig rearing.”

In return for MMF’s support, he has promised to reduce the number of gill nets he owns from three to two and can no longer be associated with the buying of new nets, loaning money for them or assisting other fisherman in acquiring them. 

He added: “I am now thinking of giving up fishing and focusing on my agriculture project. I wanted to trial the activity to see the difference in terms of profit and income between this and gill net fishing. If the project is profitable enough to cover my costs and support my family, I will give up fishing altogether. I’m really focused on proving agriculture can work so that I can share the results with the community. I want them to understand that the project is a good thing for the whole community.”

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“I want to be an example for the community so that they can understand that farming works and is a good project to be involved with”

I asked him how he felt about being one of the first to trial the project. 

Rather than seeming nervous, he was enthusiastic: “I want to be famous!"

“I want everybody to know who I am and for all the community to know me as the lead farmer. I also want to be an example for the community so that they can understand that farming works and is a good project to be involved with. Hopefully other members of the community will be inspired by me to set up agriculture projects too.”

At this moment in time, some of the other fishermen are less sure about getting involved because they don’t understand how the project will work. Yet, this only makes Mr Igreja more keen to be successful so others will also want to take part.

“It’s good for MMF to have fishermen that are really engaged in this project and it’s also good for us fishermen if the project succeeds,” he said. “MMF has opened our eyes and helped us to see that there are lots of things we can do other than fishing that are also profitable. Now I feel like a son and friend of MMF," he says.

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Mr Igreja's family and some hired help him create a vegetable farm from scratch as a pioneer of the initiative

Fishing is a tough profession, requiring long hours at sea in rough conditions (most fishermen do not know how to swim so are putting their lives on the line every time they go out to feed their families). 

Agriculture, by its nature, is much less dangerous  but is still incredibly hard work. I wondered how Mr Igreja was finding his new challenge - growing fruit and vegetables such as carrots, watermelon, onion, lettuce, tomatoes, beetroot, corn and chilli - and what problems he had encountered so far.

“I have already planted the seeds and they are germinating now so the work is going well,” he said. “But I’m worried because parts of my land are muddy and I don’t have a pump to extract the water and use it for irrigation. Also, it’s very hard labour: the vegetable patches are 15m by 2m so are too big for me to water manually twice a day without a pump.” 

He tells me the pump would cost about 25,000 Mozambican Meticals (approximately equivalent to around £315): a huge sum of money for a Mozambican.

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This fisherman has swapped catching fish for growing carrots, watermelon, onion, lettuce, tomatoes, beetroot, corn and chilli

Money, as might be expected, is an issue. There are currently six people working on Mr Igreja’s farm: himself, his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and two hired staff. He needs more help but in these early stages he doesn’t have the money to hire more people.

As someone who had farmed in the past (many years ago he farmed cassava, maize and peanuts rather than vegetables), he seems resilient to the potential challenges and positive that he can make it work: 

“They say that farming is like a child. It’s hard work at the beginning but after some time it will start to take care of the farmer and look after the farmer. My dream is for my agriculture project to succeed. When things go well it is good for me, it is good for MMF and it is good for the community.” 

A win-win situation all round, it seems.

 As we say our goodbyes, Mr Igreja invites me to come to his farm and see his vegetables once the seedlings have grown (he also wants to invite some TV channels he's clearly confident in his upcoming success). 

I hope he will have a flourishing vegetable garden for me - and the TV crews - to visit before long. 

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