Mozambique struggles to protect its dwindling marine life

Around the colourful coral reefs that ring this mangrove-fringed island in the Bay of Maputo, hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, octopuses, dolphins, yellow tuna, rays and seagoing manatees once were plentiful. Now local fishermen in their wooden sailboats have trouble catching more than a few bonitos or sardines.

“Before there were fish, but now there are very few,” said Roberto Malenda, captain of one of the small fishing vessels anchored off the island.

For more than a century, conservation organizations have pushed hard to increase the amount of the world’s biodiversity under protection in parks and other reserves. But while land preserves have dramatically multiplied – to at least 10 percent of the national territory in many countries – the surrounding ocean has been largely overlooked.

Boosting the half-percent of the world’s oceans under protection is a top priority for biodiversity experts, particularly as over-fishing pushes many commercial sea species toward extinction and coral reefs suffer unprecedented damage, in part because of ocean warming. But creating and managing marine parks – impossible to fence, hard to patrol and difficult to census – is a huge challenge, as poorer nations like Mozambique are fast discovering.

“Creating a park is the easy part. What comes next is hard,” said Marcus Pereira, a Mozambican marine biologist who recently resigned from a sea conservation non-profit group he founded in frustration over its failures to protect the nation’s ocean biodiversity.

Mozambique, with its 1,700-mile-long coastline, has some of the richest marine areas in Africa. In a study of East Africa’s coast in 2000, researchers found 21 sites in need of protection, nine of them in Mozambique. The country has long been a magnet for divers and its coral reefs, some of the southernmost in the world, are considered by many to be richer than those of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s first protected marine areas.

Mozambique, however, is a poor country even by African standards. Nearly 80 percent of Mozambicans live in poverty, according to United Nations guidelines, and life expectancy is just 39 years. Since emerging from a long civil war, the country’s leaders have made alleviating poverty and creating jobs a priority.

In recent years, Mozambique has created one large marine reserve – Quirimbas National Park, a whale breeding ground that is home to more than 400 fish species – and expanded several other land-based reserves to include their adjoining sea areas. Today about 5 percent of the country’s coastline is protected in reserves, and about 0.6 percent of the country’s total marine areas.

“Mozambique has to create many more protected marine areas. But so far we’re doing well,” said Alfonso Madope, the country’s former head of conservation areas and now coordinator of conservation projects with neighboring South Africa and Swaziland.

But trying to balance the push for greater marine conservation with protecting fishing jobs, creating new employment and building tourism is proving a major challenge.

In the protected Bazaruto Archipelago, a stunning series of reef-fringed islands that are home to the world’s last sustainable population of dugongs – seagoing manatees – developers that were allowed to build a handful of exclusive resort hotels are now pushing to add luxury private housing, a golf course and a herd of impala, apparently to reassure foreign visitors that they’re actually in Africa.

“If you build too much in Bazaruto, you destroy the reason people go to Bazaruto. You kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” warned Helena Motta, country coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund, which has helped lead marine protection efforts in Mozambique. “If it’s a park, it should be looked at as a park, with low-impact tourism.”