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Field Notes from the East African Coast

Traditional fishing techniques now involve monofilament nets, with snorkelers diving down to ensure the bigger fish don't get away.


Caine Delacy

We began this journey three months ago, a team of scientists and filmmakers traveling the East African coastline by boat to document and research the status of coral reefs from South Africa to Kenya. We have observed a lot of changes in the coral reef communities as we travel north. Some of these changes are natural shifts in biodiversity, species composition and structure of the reef communities. There are also those changes that are caused by humans.

Where Have All the Big Fish (and Sharks) Gone?

Immediately obvious when we dive a new location are the effects of fishing, fishing practices, and management. Sadly, two common observations written in our field notes are the phrases “few large fish” or “no large fish.” By large fish we mean those that are typically targeted by fishers, such as snapper, grouper, emperor (or grunter), and sweetlips. So rare are the sightings of larger fish species that we need to make specific notes on the observations of each individual or school of these groups we see.

We’ve also missed seeing an iconic fish—the shark. Out of the 150 sites we’ve seen so far, we’ve sighted only one: a lone, white-tip reef shark patrolling the reef’s edge in the Quirimbas region of Mozambique. Why have we seen only one shark? We know they exist along the coast, as we’ve seen fisherman pull them up in their nets or on their lines. In fact, we’ve seen more of them in the fish markets than we’ve seen alive! Their often-timid behavior may be a part of it and, while we may not see them, they know we are there and may keep their distance.

Unfortunately, we know very little about sharks, and we know less still in regards to the catch statistics of sharks along the East African coastline. Illegal and unregulated fishing is prolific, and with an ever-increasing shark fin trade, it is likely that fishing has taken its toll. Sharks are keystone predators and may ultimately be the controlling ecological force on reefs and, without them, changes in reef dynamics may occur, which my be detrimental and irreversible.

Using dynamite to stun or kill bigger fish to sell at market leaves behind many dead undesired fish as bycatch.


(c) 2004 Berkley White/Marine Photobank

Damaged Reefs

A second theme is the damage left by destructive fishing practices. One of the most pervasive, wasteful and destructive practices is the use of dynamite to blow up reefs, which kills all the fish within a 10-20 meter (30-60 foot) radius, and can severely injure those further away. Even in our presence fishermen continued to use dynamite to fish. While we were filming the colorful reef fish underwater, the rest of our team on board the boat watched as these bright and brilliant reef fish floated to the surface with their swim-bladders and balance organs damaged by the blast, and some still flapping in a struggle to get back to the safety of the reef. Sadly, none of these fish recover, and while the fishers only take the larger fish, hundreds or thousands are left to perish.

A Step in the Right Direction

Red Pigfish and Blue Mao-Mao school at the edge of a cavern in New Zealand's Poor Knights Islands. Read photographer Brian Skerry's story behind this photo.


Brian Skerry, National Geographic

On a positive note, there is a proliferation of marine protected areas (MPAs) in East Africa—including the Primeiras and Segundas Archipelago, Africa's biggest MPA at 10,411 square kilometers (4,020 square miles), created in November 2012 in Mozambique—but only those that have been long-established and well-regulated are reflected in our notes. “Many large fish” has been written for some of these MPAs. “Coral cover high and complex—an absence of recent dynamite fishing” also appears. As long as the creation of MPAs and the subsequent management plans are enforced, the large fish may return, destructive fishing may become less rampant, and local economies will benefit from an increase in fish to catch, and also the potential for tourists to some see their underwater treasures.

One of the treasures we came across was not in a MPA: it was a remote location of high current flow, exposed to the swells of the Indian Ocean, and of steep complex topography where the local fishers could not set their fishing gear. Here, the reef was large with not a lot of coral, due to the ocean swell it was exposed to, but complex with tunnels the size of subways, and caves and over-hangs large enough to build a house in. We saw at least half-a-dozen Napoleon wrasse, one of which was as big, if not bigger than my six-foot frame. I hope they survive for years to come, maybe I’ll make it back there one day, and if I do I hope to see these same grandfathers and grandmothers of the reef on what to me, so far has been the best dive in East Africa.