Cape Verde’s ‘fish detectives’ try to keep extinction at bay | Environment


Older fishermen such as Boaventura Martins, 60, noticed that the fish had not only become rarer, but smaller. Some species have disappeared, he says.

On a good day, Martins will catch 10 kg (22 lbs) of fish, which is barely enough to cover his fuel costs. When he started fishing 40 years ago, he brought home hundreds of kilos, enough to give part of his catch to his community on Maio Island in the Cape Verde archipelago, offshore. from the West African coast. He rejected the little fish.

At the time, there were no scuba divers or semi-industrial boats, he says. Now he sees divers every day and the lights of the big boats shine through his window almost every night.

Boaventura Martins was one of the first to join the Guardians of the Sea. Photography: Annika Hammerschlag

In 2016, he was among the first to join the inaugural Guardians of the Sea group. Today there are 20 Guardians, artisanal fishermen who monitor illegal fishing activities along the Maio coastline, one of the 10 islands that make up Cape Verde.

“Even if I don’t feel like fishing, I’m still going out to do my job as a guard,” he says. “Because if we keep going at this rate, we’ll run out of fish eventually. “

Semi-industrial ships appear periodically along the coast of Maio and stay there for weeks. At first, the Guardians would take photos, but this often led to heated confrontations. Now they record what they see with pen and paper. Sometimes their very presence has a deterrent effect.

The group was formed by a local organization, the Maio Biodiversity Foundation. When a fisherman spots illegal activity, he records the details, which are added to a database and shared with the authorities. They also track wildlife sightings to help the foundation monitor whale, dolphin and turtle populations.

One of the Guardians, Carlitos Fernandes, anchors his battered wooden boat in the cobalt depths and casts his lines. The whole time, he watches the horizon for illegal fishing boats.

Small catches at the Vila do Maio fish market.
Small catches at the Vila do Maio fish market. Photograph: Andia / Alamy

Fernandes, 37, doesn’t see any illegal boats, but he notes visits from four turtles and a pod of dolphins.

Cape Verde is a biodiversity hotspot, with 17 species of whales and dolphins, 60 species of sharks and rays and five species of sea turtles. However, only 1% of the archipelago’s marine space is protected.

Typical infractions recorded by the Guardians include divers who fish with tanks and capture protected species such as hammerhead sharks and turtles. One of the most common offenses is that of semi-industrial boats fishing within three nautical miles of the coast – an area reserved for artisanal fishermen.

Boats usually come from the main island of Santiago, where environmentalists say overfishing is rampant. The neighboring island of Maio, Santiago is home to around 300,000 Cape Verdeans and the location of Cape Verde’s capital, Praia.

In contrast, Maio, with a population of around 7,000, is one of Cape Verde’s less developed islands – its long stretches of white sand beaches and turquoise sea are mostly deserted, to the except for the thousands of sea turtles that come every summer to nest. In 2020 he was appointed Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

But the unspoiled coastline and healthy ecosystems are precisely what attract fishermen to the most populous islands. Artisanal fishermen in Maio fear it will be only a matter of time before their traditional fishing grounds start to resemble those in Santiago. Every year, the fishermen of Maio report working longer and traveling further, but still catch fewer and fewer fish.

“I’m more tired and more stressed,” says Fernandes, who just three years ago usually worked from 4 to 9 a.m. and returned with three large buckets of fish. Now he often stays outside until 1 p.m., spends more money on fuel searching for fish, and is lucky if he fills a bucket. “Sometimes I don’t catch anything.

Before becoming a keeper, his brother, Filipovic Fernandes, says he used to see other fishermen catching sea turtles almost every day. “Now, if there’s a Guardian around, they won’t catch them,” he said.

The Guardians have recorded more than 240 infractions in the past four years. The data is particularly valuable to Maio, who has only one fisheries inspector to monitor 50 miles (80 km) of coastline.

Carlitos Fernandes unloads a moray eel.
Carlitos Fernandes unloads a moray eel. Photography: Annika Hammerschlag

But the application is rare – not only must the fisheries inspector be available, but he must be accompanied by the police, who are dispersed.

“We cannot be everywhere on the island. It’s too hard to cover, ”said a police officer from Maio, who spoke anonymously as he is not authorized to speak to the media. “The information helps us know what kind of illegal activity is happening, where and how often. “

When enforcement occurs, violators are usually fined. In the most serious cases, their equipment is confiscated. No one has ever been to prison, says Sara Ratão, coordinator of the foundation’s marine program.

“The Guardians see these violations happening every day and they feel like nothing is being done,” she said.

The same boats from Santiago that were recorded illegally fishing in Maio have also been spotted about 120 miles away around the island of Sal. Led by the local conservation organization Project Biodiversity, the island started its own program in 2020 and now has 40 Guardians of the Sea, although Sal also has only one Fisheries Inspector. The neighboring island of Boa Vista is building a third group of Guardians.

Cape Verde, Maio Island: the fishermen returning from a fishing trip
Unloading today’s catch at Porto Ingles on Maio Island, Cape Verde. Fishermen report smaller catches each year. Photograph: Andia / Alamy

“Now we know what infractions are taking place and where. We know who is hiring them, ”explains Berta Renom, executive director of the project. “There are no more excuses from the authorities.”

Renom says the project has sent managers three data reports over the past year, but they have yet to receive a response. Authorities initially expressed interest in collaborating, but efforts stalled amid the elections and the onset of the pandemic.

“When they don’t act, it’s the fishermen who suffer the consequences,” she says.

Boaventura Martins
Boaventura Martins. “Even if I don’t feel like fishing, I will still go out to do my job as a keeper,” he said. Photography: Annika Hammerschlag

Ratão says she hopes the data will encourage authorities to allocate more resources to fish inspection. She wants to establish a national program but fears that the government will have different priorities.

This year, Cape Verde legalized the use of diving tanks for fishing and approved the construction of a € 500million (£ 425million) development project on Maio. The Little Africa complex will include a tourist complex, casino, luxury condominiums and a business center.

“It’s on an island where there is already barely enough water to meet the needs of the current population,” says Ratão.

Maio’s reputation as a “virgin paradise” for those seeking “pure nature” – as described on Cape Verde tourism website – could soon be a relic of the past. Cape Verde also continued to issue fishing licenses to European and Asian commercial fishing vessels in exchange for millions of pounds in royalties.

The most recent Contract with the EU grants fishing rights to 69 Spanish, Portuguese and French vessels. Approximately € 250,000 (£ 213,000) per year is supposed to be allocated to “the sustainable management of fisheries in Cape Verde, including strengthening control and surveillance capacities, and to support local fishing communities”.

But for anglers and hooks like Fernandes, who are trying to preserve fish populations, it often feels like the government is working against them.

He takes a look at the 4.5 kg of fish he caught. That’s a fraction of what he reported just three years ago.

“I don’t know if there will be fish in the future,” he said. “If we destroy nature, we will end up destroying ourselves. “

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