Climate change, pollution and the difficulties of managing sustainable fisheries are threatening livelihoods and the environment on the Swahili Coast
As dawn broke over the coast of Tanzania, the sun creeping up over the four-star hotels and high-rise apartments of Dar es Salaam’s Msasani Peninsula, a modest fleet of fishing boats, packed to the gunnels with fishers and their catch, made its way toward a small fishing community pressed between the city and the sea. Jumping into waist-deep water, the men waded ashore holding stringers dangling motley fish, bright in the golden morning light. They trudged up the beach to the fish market, where a crowd of buyers was assembled, ready to bid on the day’s catch. In the shadow of a luxury beach hotel, I sat with Musa, a lean fisher in his mid-50s, drinking hot chai on a bench after he had delivered the fish he caught.
“A small amount,” he said, shaking his head when I asked about his catch. “Not like it used to be.”
For all their work running out nets into the dark water and hauling them in under lantern light, hardly any of the fishers came away with the kind of catch they had counted on in past years. Here, on a sliver of sand at the edge of the most expensive neighborhoods in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, local fishers are barely hanging on. Their livelihoods may not be able to weather an interconnected series of crises: Warming oceans are depleting fish stocks and bleaching coral reefs, while higher tides erode the beach where they work. And as Dar es Salaam’s population booms, both the demand for fish and the willingness of desperate workers to try their luck on the ocean are growing, thwarting efforts to create sustainable fisheries.
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Up and down East Africa’s Swahili Coast, local fishers face the same uncertain future, a fate shared by countless others across the continent. These challenges are almost all man-made, but few of their root causes can be traced to the developing nations and precarious workers who will bear their most immediate effects.
In July 2022, I wandered into the Msasani fish market, where Musa and others sold their catch, and struck up a conversation with Didi, a young fishmonger who, without much fish to sell, became my unofficial guide to the fishing village. We walked the beach at high tide, navigating the narrow space between lapping waves and the small shops and corrugated metal shacks where fishers shopped, ate and slept. When king tides roll up the shore at the new moon, the seawater now surges all the way up to the informal living spaces. Didi pointed up the coast, to where local resorts had begun to surrender their beachfront cabanas to the ever-higher tides. “When I was younger, the water was never this high,” he said. “But you don’t notice the change every day. If you went away for a long time and came back, you would see.”
Here, away from the tourists, hundreds of Tanzanian residents in the informal economy make their living on the small strip of land between the enclosed residential compounds of the rich and the encroaching sea. Pointing to the walls just feet away, I asked Didi what would happen when the sea finally rose to meet them, where the fishers would go? He smiled and shrugged — like everyone there, he didn’t have an answer.
I had, in fact, gone away for a long time. I first visited this same fishing community a decade ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer working in Tanzania. A friend and I would make our way past the high walls of ostentatious homes built by the city’s wealthy to this stretch of beach, to buy warm beer at a scrap-wood kiosk and watch the sunset. It was the realm of local fishers, who played checkers and rolled spliffs in the evening after selling off their catch, a short walk away from the expensive beachfront restaurants where well-heeled expats ordered sundowners and seafood dinners that cost far more than the men who caught their entrees would see in weeks of toil.
Now, I wound my way down the same trails years later to find a vastly different shoreline. It was far more crowded, corrugated metal shacks proliferating along the border between the fancy hotels and apartment complexes and the ocean. Women crouched by wood fires cooking chai and local dishes, and far more groups of idle young men lounged restlessly in the shade. Scores of small fishing boats bobbed in the tide or sat on the shore for refitting and repair.
There I met Saidi, a young fisher sitting in the shade of a kiosk behind the market, carefully winding long spools of high-test fishing line that ended in barbed hooks the size of his palm. Nearby, one of his friends prepared bait, carefully slicing small squid into uniform strips. The two 20-somethings specialize in what local fishers call “deep-sea” work, multi-day stints out past the edge of the coastal shelf, where the ocean floor drops away and large tuna can be found. It’s a 45-mile trip in small fiberglass boats packed with lines, ice, food and fishers, a single outboard motor pushing them past the hulking cargo ships waiting to pull into port, past the ferries full of tourists bound for Zanzibar, and then past the famed island itself, into endless blue waters well beyond the sight of land. Bobbing on the open ocean, sleeping in shifts, they prepare their long lines and scout for fish.
“We look for the tuna jumping, and when we see them, we move to cut across the schools,” said Saidi, drawing a diagram in the sand. Towing their lines, hoping for a strike, they fight to land the fish by hand. He showed me a video on Instagram in which he stands in a small boat and draws up a fishing line, the shape of a large tuna rising slowly from the depths, until it is gaffed and hauled aboard, a roughly 100-pound prize. According to Saidi, coming back with just one or two such tuna is common now. The price is up due to the limited supply, but it’s not enough to offset the meager catch. Growing up near the beach, Saidi learned to sail, and with sponsorship from the local sailing club, traveled around the world to compete. But back home, unable to find other work, he found himself returning time and again to fishing.
“If you study, maybe you can get a job in an office,” he said. “But there’s always fishing.” Despite his preparations, he wasn’t going out that day, instead waiting on an outboard motor to be repaired for the boat he would rent with his fellow fishers.
“So much depends on luck,” he added after a moment’s silence. It was unclear if he meant catching fish, the difficulties of outdated engines or simply one’s lot in life.
Lydia Kapapa, a fisheries researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Dar es Salaam, has been studying the effects of climate on fishing up and down the Tanzanian coast, where increasingly erratic rainfall and rising surface temperatures have made it harder for local fishers to bring in adequate catches. The effects of the decreased catch reverberate beyond the income of fishers, Kapapa explained. The women who cook food on the beach, owners of small shops and kiosks, and all manner of businesses in the informal economy feel the squeeze when there is not enough money coming in from the sea. A collapse in fishing could cause entire communities to fall apart. “The majority of people along the coast depend on fishing in some way. Even if they are doing something else, it comes back to fishing,” Kapapa said. “Fishing is their employment of last resort. When fishing decreases, they don’t have any other options.”
The higher temperatures also mean schools of large fish move farther offshore into cooler waters. For those chasing deep-sea catches, the distance increases danger; on an afternoon last July, three fishers from the Msasani fishing community drowned when their boat capsized in high seas.
If rising water temperatures are driving big fish farther out to sea and endangering deep-sea fishers like Saidi, they’re causing even more damage to the near-shore fishing zones where the vast majority of East Africa’s fishers ply their trade. As water temperatures have risen, coral reefs that provide a habitat for fish have begun to bleach. A study published in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability in 2022 predicts that all the coral reefs in the western Indian Ocean, from northern Kenya down to Mozambique, are at risk of collapse in the next 50 years, decimating local fish populations.
David Obura, one of the authors of the article, has been monitoring coral bleaching in the region for more than 14 years and is the director of CORDIO, a research network based in Mombasa, Kenya, focused on coral reef science. The last coral bleaching event was in 2016, he said on a phone call, and they seem to occur every six to seven years — making the region likely to see another one soon, especially as the weather shifts into a hot El Nino pattern in the coming year. He expects to see another major bleaching event in the region that will “kill off a significant portion of coral and set us even further back.”
“These step declines, every few years, are only going to intensify and worsen conditions,” Obura said, adding that any recovery made by the coral ecosystem during the intervening years will be erased each time.
Even without the pressures of climate change, the coastal waters of the western Indian Ocean are rife with pollution, as rivers up and down the coast carry in their currents the myriad pesticides in agricultural runoff from upcountry farms, heavy metals from industrial pollution, and the wastewater of unincorporated slums along their banks. A lack of oversight and dearth of wastewater treatment plants in countries like Tanzania have severely affected the health of struggling coastal waters, Obura said, and must be addressed if fish populations are to have a chance of recovery.
Along the fishing beach in Msasani, three long concrete piers extend into the water, beckoning residents to take selfies at sunset and dangle their legs over the ocean. But at low tide, they reveal their true purpose, as the receding water exposes the great sewer pipes at their core, streaming the city’s effluent out into the shallow waters in dirty brown plumes.
Onshore, Dar es Salaam’s population is booming as a result of both the country’s high birth rate and the countless Tanzanians leaving their rural villages to seek out greater opportunity in the cities — a trend that is playing out across Africa. The coastal economic capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam has roughly 7 million residents by official counts, though many believe the number to be higher. One of the fastest-growing cities on the continent, it has been projected to reach 10 million residents by 2030 and earn the official designation of “megacity.” The United Nations estimates that Dar es Salaam’s population will hit 13.4 million just five years later, in 2035 — which means adding roughly 1,500 new residents to the sprawling city every single day for the next decade.
While most of the newcomers will find shelter in the informal settlements that flow outward from the edges of the city, some will inevitably make their way to the beaches, looking for fishing work in the liminal space between city and sea. What used to be an artisanal industry run by coastal locals is now a jumble of Tanzania’s 100-plus tribes, with countless transplants from landlocked inland regions. Speaking with fishers in the evenings, I met Sambaa from the northern coast near Tanga, Gogo from central Dodoma and Ngoni from down south near Mbeya. All have made their way to this strip of sand to find a living. A fisher for 20 years, Bakari told me that even some of the pastoralist Maasai people are fishing now — perhaps second sons without cattle to inherit, now unable to find their usual urban work as gate guards and night watchmen.
A Dar es Salaam local, Bakari began fishing right out of secondary school, spending years on the water while watching the catches decrease and the competition increase. Now, he has given up on fishing to drive a motorcycle taxi in the city. Leaning against his bike in the shade of a palm, he complained about the city’s endless traffic but was happy with his trade.
“There’s not much money in driving,” he said, “but less stress.”
Whether or not all the new arrivals to Dar es Salaam can find work, they all need to eat. According to a 2021 report by WorldFish, if population growth continues at its current rate, Tanzania will see its demand for fish double by 2030, putting increasing pressure on already overtaxed fishing stocks. For Tanzanians who work in informal sectors, it is a much cheaper source of protein than chicken or beef.
On a hot afternoon in Kisutu, Dar es Salaam’s city center, I joined the throngs of workers at a huge, open-air lunch market beside one of the rapid-transit bus stops that shuttles residents across the city for work. Here, a plate of the local staple, “ugali” (boiled corn meal) with a small fried fish and some boiled greens, costs just under $1. Each day, hundreds of people crowd the small plastic tables as women stoop over charcoal stoves and bubbling pots of oil, churning out an endless supply of sustenance for the heaving city’s workers, serving up fish brought in that very morning from the markets across town.
The term “overfishing” calls to mind the great fleets of Chinese trawlers pillaging the deep ocean, but even artisanal fishing by locals can have a major toll on fish stocks. In Dar es Salaam and other cities on the coast, scores of motorized boats, each with upward of 20 or 30 fishers, ply the near-shore waters every day, part of an intensive, commercialized industry that supplies local markets.
Large numbers of fishers, using unregulated fishing gear, are depleting fish populations even without the aid of industrial machinery. At the low tides off Msasani, teams of men wade chest-deep into the water, dragging in long beach seine nets, which scrape up swaths of coral as they haul in their catch. From the boats, devastatingly effective ring nets are dropped overboard, spanning 50 or 65 feet down from the surface, damaging the coral where they land and indiscriminately capturing both adult and juvenile fish, preventing the schools from reproducing at a rate that can keep up.
“Limiting the use of this gear on coral reefs is not very effective in East Africa,” Obura said. “The governance and management of these fisheries is not strong enough to manage the pressure or limit the impact or destructive nature of the gear that’s being used.”
He is not calling for a complete moratorium on fishing, instead stressing that some oversight on types of fishing gear is required. But on the beaches of Dar es Salaam, there’s rarely any official regulatory presence to be seen. Some years ago, there was a successful campaign against illegal blast fishing, as fishers destroyed reefs with dynamite in search of easy catches, detonating jury-rigged depth charges clandestinely manufactured using mining explosives. The shock waves killed adult fish, juveniles and coral indiscriminately, wreaking havoc that will take years to recover.
Fishers on the beach recall the enforcement crackdown on blast fishing, but don’t regularly deal with officials when it comes to day-to-day activities: no gear or net checks, no analysis or tracking of their catch, just the work. There’s an occasional bust of the low-level pot dealers and smokers who proliferate along the beach, they said, but otherwise their small world is theirs.
Under colonialism and in the early postcolonial period, East Africa tried to take a standard Western governmental approach, creating departments of fisheries to create and enforce best policies, monitor catch collection and evaluate fish stocks. But that has largely failed, said Tim McClanahan, who oversees the Wildlife Conservation Society’s coastal fisheries work in East Africa from Mombasa, where he’s worked for 30 years. Their efforts suffered from poor management, data collection and analysis, as well as low levels of enforcement. And in the 1980s and ’90s, he said, organizations like the World Bank stopped giving loans for fisheries management, leading to government cost-cutting and further reductions in capacity.
Over the years, adjusting to the limitations of government institutions, the trend in international conservation aid has been toward community-based management of natural resources. A cursory internet search for fisheries projects in East Africa shows nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits touting this approach, with the usual paeans to empowering outcomes, capacity-building and training. But after three decades in the field, McClanahan cautions against the efficacy of such models.
While many groups implement training sessions to teach local fishers about monitoring their catch, using less destructive nets and limiting the time or area in which they fish, they often leave enforcement up to the community. “There is a transference of costs down to the local community level, and those local communities are very poor,” McClanahan said. “You’re asking them to do a lot of things for free.”
If one group of fishers restricts its practices and limits its catch, but their neighbors do not, they have placed themselves at a disadvantage for no reason. Locally managed conservation efforts are only as effective as the weakest neighbor. Without big-picture oversight between groups of fishers, the continuous demand for fish from a growing population and the competition for even a small amount of income will mean few are incentivized to stop their current practices or consider the long-term need for regeneration.
“You have desperate people desperately seeking out the last available biomass of fish,” McClanahan said. “And every year, the fish stocks decline another few percent.”
But even if these community-based approaches worked exactly as intended, and fishers banded together to slow the depletion of the fisheries through local action, they are contending with a much larger destructive force, over which they have almost no control: global climate change. The warming water temperatures, dying coral and rising ocean levels are part of a catastrophe that artisanal fishers do not have the reach to combat.
“A lot of the responsibility for conservation … is being placed on poor tropical countries, but it’s the high-income countries in the north that have long been responsible for the growth that is impacting climate — while extracting food and other resources from the Global South,” Obura said.
Studies show that the world’s heavily industrialized countries have contributed more than 90% of the excess greenhouse gas emissions driving the climate crisis. At the recent annual U.N. climate summit, COP28 in Dubai, representatives agreed that massive cuts must be made to the use of fossil fuels, alongside major investments in renewable energy. But such costly changes are hard to accomplish for poorer nations in the Global South. Representatives from the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, like many others from developing nations on the front lines of climate change, called for “differentiated responsibility” when it comes to stemming the tide, arguing that the nations that created the problem should do more to fix it, while developing countries should have less onerous commitments as they seek to grow their economies.
The outcomes of the summit were roundly criticized by campaigners from the Global South, but the wrangling of geopolitics can seem light-years away from the daily realities of groups like East African fishers, who face an existential threat to their way of life with little hope for the future, while representatives from rich nations pose for photo-ops.
“Nature does have very strong regenerative powers,” Obura said. “But you have to give it a chance. There’s no way to escape if we don’t deal with the climate threat.”
On my last visit to the beach, in November 2023, I sat with friends in the early evening, drinking thimble-sized cups of black coffee and catching up on news. Not much had changed. The mounting crisis for fishers here doesn’t present itself in one moment of catastrophe, but in the slow degradation of climate and the accretion of challenges that make each day almost imperceptibly more difficult until one finds one’s way of life untenable.
Still, men went on gutting and scaling their catch at the water’s edge, fending off mewling, persistent cats. Up on the sand, another man stuffed dried palm fronds under his dugout canoe, setting them alight to burn the algae from underneath his boat. The flames licked hungrily, briefly upward, before collapsing to ash and smoke. On the silty flat of the low tide, as the sunset threw pink and purple light across the puddles of seawater, a steady line of fishers filed out to waiting boats, carrying buckets of supplies, each with a small bundle of food for the long night ahead.
Walking up the beach toward the road and the comforts of my cheap hotel, I ran into Musa, whom I hadn’t seen since my visit earlier in the year. He was dressed in slacks and a crisp short-sleeved button-up, a far cry from the usual fisher’s uniform. We greeted each other and stood catching up amid the bustle of the beach. He looked well, I remarked, and he laughed — he wasn’t fishing, he said, but had found work driving a dala dala, one of Dar’s ubiquitous city buses. It was regular work with a regular wage, contending with the choking traffic of the city streets instead of the waves. I asked if he planned to keep doing it, or if he’d be back to the beach eventually. He shrugged.
“Work changes,” he said. “But the sea is always there.”