Africa Defense Forum
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Guardians of the Sea Protect Cabo Verde’s Marine Life

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Boaventura Martins has been fishing off the island of Maio for 40 years.

Maio is part of the Cabo Verde archipelago, a group islands 620 kilometers off Africa’s west coast, where the waters once teemed with sharks, whales, rays, sea turtles, tuna and blue marlin. Years ago, Martins could pull hundreds of kilograms of fish from the turquoise sea on a given day, but now he says he’s fortunate to catch 10 kilograms per day.

An influx of scuba divers and semi-industrial fishing trawlers are to blame for the declining fish populations, Martins and other artisanal fishermen told British newspaper The Guardian.

In 2016, some local fishermen began fighting back through Guardians of the Sea, a program established by the Maio Biodiversity Foundation (FMB), a local partner of Fauna & Flora International (FFI), to halt illegal fishing.

“Even if I don’t feel like fishing, I will still go out to do my work as a Guardian,” Martins, 60, told The Guardian. “Because if we keep going at this rate, eventually we will run out of fish.”

Sara Ratão, the foundation’s marine and terrestrial program coordinator, said the program was initially started to stop turtle poaching.

“We later expanded the project to include the monitoring of other protected species, as well as combating other illegal fishing activities,” Ratão said in a story on FFI’s website.

Unlike illegal fishing closer to the West African coast, where foreign countries commit the majority of sea crimes, illegal fishing in Maio is mostly perpetrated by semi-industrial trawlers from Santiago, Cabo Verde’s main island.

Maio fishermen told The Guardian that the illegal acts are mainly committed within 3 nautical miles of the coastline, an area designated for artisanal fishermen. Maio has only one fisheries inspector to monitor its 80-kilometer coastline.

When the Guardians program began, members often took photos of boats or divers fishing illegally, but that practice led to angry confrontations. Now, they write down what they witness, including the marine species they encounter. The island’s 20 Guardians have recorded more than 240 infractions over the past four years, according to the newspaper.

Ratão, FMB’s marine and terrestrial program coordinator, said that the data is shared with authorities in hopes of encouraging officials to allocate more resources for fisheries inspections. Ratão was dismayed this year when Cabo Verde legalized the use of diving tanks for fishing and approved the construction of a major development project on Maio that will include a tourist resort, casino, luxury condominiums and a business center.

“This is on an island where there’s already barely enough water to sustain the current population,” Ratão told The Guardian. Maio has a population of just more than 8,300.

Locals also worry about a five-year deal Cabo Verde signed with the European Union in 2019 that allows up to 69 vessels from EU countries to fish in the archipelago’s waters.

Strain on Artisanal Fishermen

Despite the program’s efforts, Guardian Carlitos Fernandes, 37, said he and other small-scale fishermen are having to travel much farther, stay at sea longer and often come back with a disappointing catch.

“I’m more tired and more stressed,” Fernandes told The Guardian. “Sometimes I don’t catch anything.”

But the program has also been beneficial, according to Fernandes’ brother, Filipovic Fernandes, also a Guardian. Before its inception, he said he saw fishermen catch sea turtles every day.

“Now, if there’s a Guardian around, they won’t catch them,” he told the newspaper.

The Guardians started another program last year in Sal, where the same trawlers from Santiago that fish illegally in Maio have also been spotted. Sal’s Guardians program has 40 members. Boa Vista, which neighbors Sal, is also implementing a Guardians program.

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