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Horn Of Africa Fishermen Hope To Net Lucrative Western Markets
As antiquated as Mohamed's methods may be, he and other Djiboutian fisherman could this year begin exporting to Europe and the U.S., their catch marketed as sustainable and environmentally friendly.
With global fish stocks plummeting from overfishing by commercial fleets, Djibouti — the capital and the country bear the same name — is relying on its fishermen, who live closer to the age of Sindbad than the 21st century, to use hook and line to revive the industry off the coast of the Horn of Africa.
These bountiful waters are much prized and vastly under-exploited.
There is no battling against the elements here, no deep swells or darkened seas. Trawlers with drift nets are banned from its craggy, 314-kilometer (195-mile) coastline though there are fears illegal fisherman who have plundered nearby waters might next turn to Djibouti.
On this breezy early morning in the seaside city of Djibouti, the 300 or so fishermen in tiny boats bring in a daily catch of around 3 tons (2.7 metric tons).
World Trade Organization analysts believe they can scale up 50-fold to potentially 48,000 tons (43,500 metric tons) a year without depleting local stocks.
"But we do not want to plunder these seas," says U.S. businessman Mehrdad Radseresht, who has invested US$3.5 million ( € 2.6 million) in helping develop port facilities with cold storage and a laboratory. The catch would be limited, and therefore environmentally friendly, because the means are so basic.
"We want to use fishing methods once thought old fashioned to preserve stocks," he says. His goal is a daily catch of around 15 tons (13.6 metric tons) of high value fish, like tuna and swordfish, worth some US$120 million ( € 90 million) a year and generating thousands of jobs. Radseresht is promising fresh fish from local fishermen on tables within 48 hours anywhere in the world.
Said Omar Moussa, the president of Djibouti's Chamber of Commerce, said Radseresht's idea had merit.
"Fishing off the coast of Djibouti is underutilized and adding value by marketing it as sustainable and environmentally friendly has the potential to create wealth and jobs in our country," Moussa said. ""We would like to see this scheme move forward as quickly as possible."
Radseresht, the majority shareholder in Djibouti Marine Management and Investments, is providing fish cages, local nets, ice and credit to help rebuild the small Djiboutian fleet with more and larger, modern boats with better on-board processing facilities.
Local fishermen are guaranteed a fixed price and can sell their entire catch to Radseresht, rather than having to negotiate with small traders supplying a limited, local market.
"Our fishing industry was dying but now it is picking up again," says Mohamed, his toothless grin, wild hair and weather beaten face the norm among the men who rise hours before daybreak to catch red snapper, grouper, barracuda and tuna.
Radseresht is also in negotiations to fish coastal waters off the semiautonomous Puntland and Somaliland regions of Somalia that neighbor Djibouti, where he can double the catch.
Across Europe and the U.S., the scarcity of local fish has led to a scramble for seafood from remote corners of the world. Consumers are also becoming more aware of business practices and are increasingly demanding ethically sourced food.
Radseresht is already supplying fish for 3,000 French troops in the region.
In a month or so, fresh grouper labeled Africana Wild will be flown overnight, packed in ice, some 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) to the U.S West Coast.
"We have almost fished our waters out," says Donald Campbell, of U.S.-based Gulf Marine Investments, who is working with Radseresht and was recently on a fact-finding mission to the hot, Massachusetts-sized desert republic.
He is looking to fly 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of grouper each week to San Francisco, an area whose seas once teemed with the fish.
"Consumers will pay a premium for sustainable, well-sourced fish and the fishermen here are using safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly methods," Campbell said.
Radseresht also is eyeing the potential 451 million customers in Europe and awaiting a final inspection on the processing and under-construction laboratory in September to meet EU rules on food hygiene and imports.
The EU license is also pivotal to expanding Djibouti's fishing sector, drawing in fishermen from across the entire region to sell to him.
Nearby, are port facilities for shipping frozen fish by container ship. Djibouti's international airport is ready to fly freshly caught fish.
Yet, Djibouti's hopes at small scale, sustainable fishing may also be its undoing.
With a minimal coastline and territorial sea, this tiny African city state will need to watch its neighbors, particularly Eritrea, Yemen and Somalia. All are looking to develop industrial fishing which may affect the stocks they share with Djibouti, according to the U.N's food and agriculture agency.
Illegal fishing is also a serious problem, says East African maritime expert, Andrew Mwangura, an illicit trade that costs Africa US$500 million ( € 375 million) a year.
The waters off the Somali coast are already plundered by illegal fishermen to the tune of US$90 million ( € 68 million) a year, he says, warning Djibouti could be next.
Source: The Associated Press