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The Songosongo Archipelago and Octopus Fishing Reef Closures

It is that time again; Octopus fishing reef opening! All eyes and ears in Songosongo!

© Joan Itanisa
Songosongo waters

It is with super excitement that the team is travelling to Songosongo Island. History says humanity on the Songosongo Archipelago started about 700 years ago. Hosting the richest marine habitats, Songosongo located South of Mafia Island and 30 miles from the mainland of Tanzania is comprised of small five Islands with Songosongo being the main one.
Surrounded by beautiful powder sand beaches and azure clear undisturbed waters, Songosongo is a place that one will wish to spend a quite holiday surrounded by marine nature. The team though is on this to die for place not for holidays, rather on a likewise exciting mission; the opening of a periodical closed octopus fisheries reef!
It is one day before the Big day at Songosongo Island where after a long wait the fishers will all go out at nearby Njovi island for the opening. The excitement at the village is really high, everyone looking forward to the day, because as one was heard saying, this day is looked forward to even more than Christmas or New year! More than two thousand people will be congregating at Njovi for only one mission which is octopus harvest. They are very organized, as we reach the Island from the boat ride from the mainland a meeting is in progress. This involved the Beach Management Unit members (which is actually everyone in the village) and the village leadership. Issues discussed range from the prices (which brings unhappiness on several faces; we will get into that later), procedures to be observed on the day and most importantly the identification for the people who will be allowed to harvest. This is critical as the community at Songosongo are given first priority and therefore they have to make sure this is observed. Special identifications are given out, and by the time the meeting is ending more than 1800 people have been registered and identified for the harvest. Others have been identified as buyers and a small group are fishers from the nearby Mafia Island who have come for learning hoping to replicate the experience back home.
We are given a tour and a “dress rehearsal” to the Njovi Island where all will be happening the next day. It is amazing how the waters are clean but more exciting is the fact that you could see the octopuses so easily even with an unpracticed eye. They are also big. One Juma Shahali Makame from Juani Mafia can not conceal his excitement and doubts at the same time. Excitement because he has never witnessed something like what he is seeing and doubt because unlike here where the reef is big and undisturbed back in Mafia the reef is smaller and fishers find it hard to wait close the reef for three months. “I really look forward to tomorrow to witness the outcome which I feel will be major, am sad though because even though we are learning a lot here, in Mafia we are not this nature blessed, our reef is small and scattered across four villages, we will have a big task of mobilizing all the four villages to work together and take on the octopus reef closures. We will not reach the Songosongo levels but surely we will improve our fishing practice and get better harvests”.

© WWF Tanzania
What a catch!

Going back to the main island, everyone is busy preparing for the day. There is no sleeping here today. Fishing boats start arriving at the Njovi island from 5 am in the morning. By 8am there are more than 80 boats and more than 2000 people! All we are waiting for to get into the ocean is the low tide. (octopuses are easily harvested during the low tide where the waters are shallow). We have our security ready, and a cue is usually given out to start the harvesting. After the cue is given the only thing happening is harvesting! Speed and precision is critical for a fisherman at this point. Most of them though are experienced as some have done this all their lives. Men and women alike are out in the ocean, some with sacks and others with ropes to tie in their harvests. It is a sight for sore eyes!

© Joan Itanisa

One specific woman captures my attention and I decide to keep close and observe her. She is Waraha Abdallah Swaleh, born and raised in Songosongo. A mother of four, Waraha has been a BMU member since 2015. She has a sack and works with two colleagues, she says it easier and faster that way. After one hour she takes a few minutes’ rest and I got to speak to her. She says this is their fourth opening following the practice of periodical octopus fisheries reef closure. “ It is a practice that we are going to maintain because apart from helping us protect our marine resources fishers get lumpsum money at the same time and therefore one is able to put the money into a bigger visible investment and get tangible long term benefits.
“During the last opening which was the biggest I invested the money I got in a retail shop which assists me hugely with day to day demands and schooling for my children. Unlike going to the ocean everyday which is tedious and usually you only get a few harvest that only saves as food at home. This time around I am hoping to renovate my house with the money that I will get”. She adds.

The fishers keep at it for a few more hours before the tide comes back. What follows is taking their harvest for weighing and await for the next day and eventually the payment. The exercise is carried on mostly for three days. By the end of the first day it is reported that the fishers have harvested more than 7.5 tonnes of octopus!
A representative from the Ministry of fisheries and livestock is amongst the people the reef. Ms. Flora Luhanga is a Principle Fisheries Officer represented the the Permanent Secretary. She says octopus fishing reef closures are beneficial both for the marine resources and the communities as well. “The government appreciates WWF Tanzania for their leadership on this important initiative and we are working towards replicating this in as many fishing sites as possible. Both in the ocean as well as in our many freshwater bodies”.

© Joan Itanisa
Octopus weighing

The coordinator for the Marine Programme Dr. Modesta Medard acknowledge the government’s support and thanked the fishers of Songosongo for agreeing to take this initiative and become its custodians. “Despite the challenges that still exist, we have witnessed a lot of enthusiasm and committed by the BMU’s and the community as a whole and for this we thank you. We are working hand in hand with the government and supporters to see the end of the remaining challenges of the markets and storage for the harvested octopus. We have received a grant that we are using to build a solar operated cooling facility here at Songosongo. The village leadership is overseeing the project which when completely it will indeed go many miles in solving the storage challenge. A few investors have agreed to buy the harvest this time, we are hoping for more next time and hopefully the prices will improve as well”. She says.
At the end of the three days a total of 9.2 tonnes were harvested. A big drop from the last opening where the final harvest stood at a little more than 19 tonnes.  This is said to be the outcome of delaying the reef opening due to COVID 19 pandemic. The reef was supposed to be opened in May but that did not happen as the Tanzania government had stopped all gatherings as a means of controlling the spread of the pandemic. Therefore, the octopuses got bigger in size that they moved to the bigger areas in the deep sea. As most of the countries were also in lock down there was no chance of selling the harvests. This has also led to another challenge which is having the prices go really down this time around. Whereas during the last opening a kilo of octopus was at 4,000 Tanzania shillings (1.8USD), this time a kilo stood at 2500 Tanzania shillings (1.08 USD)

© Joan Itanisa
Getting the best from nature

Harvested on the coast of the Indian Ocean region, the octopus is a source of income for numerous coastal communities. Formerly considered as a low-value product that only fisher households consume, octopus from South West Indian Ocean is now widely marketed. Nowadays, the region exports over 3,000MT of octopus per year, the largest part of which is provided by Tanzania and Madagascar. The octopuses are mainly intended for the European Union market, particularly Portugal, Italy, and France (Octopus Fishery Management Initiatives: A Promising Approach for Managing Coastal Fisheries: SmartFiche25 2014)
WWF Tanzania has supported the coastal fishing communities with different initiatives, octopus closing being one of them. Thomas Chale (the project executant) says with COVID 19 activities have slowed down and the coastal communities have been affected, but now life is getting back to normal. “Having stopped our field activities for a few months, our initiative slowed down, but now we are happy that slowly life is coming back to normal. We have already started the construction of the solar operated cooling plant with funding from the Kigali Cooling Efficiency

Joan Itanisa, Communications Manager