By Gus Ruchman, ’15
Since the 1980’s broad changes in the economy and demographics of Zanzibar have promoted increased reliance on fishing as a primary source of income. While limited infrastructure and profit potential previously restricted fishing to local and familial consumption, population growth and a rapidly expanding tourism sector have created a new market framework in which fishermen operate. This study analyzes perceptions of the transformation of the fishing community and its consequences for the Zanzibar’s population, culture, and coastal ecosystem through oral interviews with academics, current and former fishermen, fishmongers, a former fisheries officer, hotel restaurant employees, and a government officials.
Fishermen and officials perceive that augmented demand for seafood due to tourism and population growth has raised prices, particularly for fish species of greater physical size. However, while many fishermen discern market trends, they do not corroborate a single story of income improvement. Rather, fishermen of differing boat capacities and catch methods express alienation from the lucrative tourist supply chain and continue to experience fiscal insecurity and cyclical poverty. Furthermore, increased prices of large fish species prevent ordinary citizens from consuming traditional foods. Thus the benefits offered by improved market access are often seen as insubstantial.
Fishermen also express concern at the crowding of coastal waters due to an enlarged fishing population but the persistence of artisanal methods by which most boats cannot access deeper fisheries. Although total catch has increased, fishermen recognize that catch per fisherman has declined. Still, many fishermen repudiate the possibility of long-term overfishing and over-exploitation, a primary concern of officials. While to some extent traditional fishing systems—boats, techniques, and attitudes—have survived and at times benefitted from contemporary market shifts, economic and ecological pressures of the coming decades may overwhelm the Zanzibari fishing sector with adverse consequences for those reliant upon it.