Pleasing the tourists and saving the fishMenai Bay, Zanzibar: Menai Bay, on the southern tip of Zanzibar's Unguja Island, is the largest of the marine conservation areas along the Tanzanian coast. In the early 1990s, community discussions began about the fate of the Bay when local people noticed how much longer it took them to catch a progressively smaller number of fish.
Even a small drop in the amount of fish was immediately felt in this region, where 1,600 of the 16,000 residents make their living from the sea. Small-scale fishery had been doing well for a number of years, supplying not only local needs but also benefiting from the tourism boom taking place throughout Tanzania. Zanzibar fish were feeding the island's many new resort hotels and also going to market in Dar es Salaam, 60 kilometres away.
Whatever the pressures were Menai Bay's delicate ecological balance started to wobble. When the catch began to drop, fishermen decreased the mesh size of their nets. But catches continued to fall and even more drastic practices began. Dynamite became a popular fishing method and there were reports of poison being used. Some started trawling along the seabed, catching everything in their path, including sea grasses and coral.
"When we knew the local people and the government were becoming concerned, we felt we had to do something," said Monica Borner of the conservation organization WWF-Switzerland. The oceanless Swiss have supported this project since WWF first became involved in the problems of Menai Bay in 1994.
Menai is 470 square kilometres of semi-enclosed bay dotted with eight islands, ranging from sandbars to one island large enough to house some 3,000 people in two villages. It has pristine beaches with nesting hawksbill and green turtles, rocky cliffs and long stretches of mangroves. The bay's waters, especially around the southernmost town of Kizimkazi, are popular with at least 200 bottlenose and humpback dolphins.
WWF has been working to persuade local communities to conserve their marine environment and to show residents how they will benefit from sensible use of natural resources and has equipped four villages with base station radios and fishermen carry handsets to report illegal fishing.
WWF is also cooperating with the Tanzanian Government to provide a legal framework to protect the Bay. Work has already begun on a general management plan which aims to include legislation that local groups can enforce. Such laws would restrict minimum mesh size for fishing nets and residents hope it will completely outlaw bottom trawling, pull-nets and drag seining which scrape the ocean floor, breaking or detaching corals.
These laws should also regulate tour operators who take visitors to "swim with the dolphins". There were 5,000 visitors in 1998, doubling to 10,000 in 1999. "No one expected thousands and thousands of visitors," said Winley Sichone, Technical Advisor for the Menai Bay Project.
Guidelines now recommend that boats should not pursue dolphins and swimmers should stay close to the boats. In practice however, these guidelines are flagrantly ignored, with many tourists unaware that they exist.
Eva Stensland, a Ph.D. student from Stockholm University, has studied Menai Bay dolphin mothers and their calves for years. Working in conjunction with the Institute of Marine Sciences at Dar es Salaam University, she is studying family units. These dolphins are the most vulnerable and would thus be the first affected by any changes to their environment.
"You can see a lot of deep dives when the tourists come close or rev their engines," says Stensland. "You see a lot of changing direction, herding of the dolphins by the boats." Sichone points out that open access has always been the policy of the Tanzanian Government. "How do we make community participation work with completely open access?"
It is a question of balancing the needs of fishermen with the income generation of the tour operators - of deciding whether a tourists' picnic on a sandbar degrades the island or profits the locals. It is a question of earning a living today while ensuring the next generation will be able to earn a living from the marine system, and of balancing the desires of tourists and the needs of dolphin calves and their mothers.
Experts believe that if the animals are too annoyed by tourists they will seek new territory. This would be bad news for Menai Bay's income generation and for those responsible tourists seeking to spend time with the dolphins - whose popularity may cause their destruction. Stensland is encouraged by the slow yet steady progress. "Just five years ago," she says, " local people were spearing dolphins for meat."
*Elaine Eliah is a freelance journalist based in Venice, Italy