By David Banks
It was almost four years ago, but I remember it vividly. My hands were so sore from sun and salt that I could barely hold onto the bow line of a bouncing zodiac skiff. But I barely noticed. All I saw were mountains of waves ahead — or to be more exact, explosions of waves.
I looked back at the “captain,” the guy with his hand on the little outboard’s throttle. He seemed unconcerned, a look I had grown accustomed to in Mozambique. But it’s not a look that puts you at ease.
I was heading out of vast mangrove lagoons — a three-hour ride by fast boat — to open Indian Ocean water. A big channel separates the mainland from a series of offshore islands and coral reefs.
It’s a wild coast with a history of war, pirates, Swahili traders and a relatively brief period of Portuguese settlement. But for the last 40 years, it had been a forgotten coast.
We provided funding over three years to help with resource management as the government steered toward designating a new marine protected area. This reserve would protect important habitat and enable rules for sustainable fishing to be put in place and enforced.
In the meantime, I joined Conservancy scientists working with WWF staff to conduct assessments of coral-reef resiliency. Results would be used to protect the most critical parts of the reef system.
By day, we surveyed different reefs and met with families from nearby communities. We snorkeled among sunken Portuguese passenger ships and met with fishermen on their dhows.
I was amazed at how few fish these guys were catching. In their tattered clothes, fishing with spear guns and nets, they’d stay on the water for two days. They barely covered the cost of their diesel, much less income for their families back on land.
At day’s end, we camped on islands and ate fried canned sausages mixed with blown sand, followed by biscuits and warm Scotch.
By protecting the hardiest corals, we aimed to enhance the reef system’s resilience to increased sediment and water temperatures driven by climate change. We also hoped this approach would begin to address root causes of the other problems we observed: poverty and lack of governance.
Flying in, we had seen donor-issued mosquito nets that, instead of being used for protection against malaria, were strung together to haul small fish, larvae and eggs from lagoons.
Out on the coral-fringed islands, we saw fishermen spearing only small fish, lobster and octopus because nothing larger was left. There were no rules, and poverty and hunger drove people’s actions.
We did find big fish, however, and plenty of them. They stuck to exposed areas of the reef too dangerous for fishermen in dhows and dugouts to reach. Their presence offers hope for the overfished areas.
Known as Primeiras and Segundas (“First” and “Second” in Portuguese), this forgotten coast’s name does not do justice to its power. With its incredible coral reefs, rich shrimpery and intact mangroves, this area has much to offer the world. I’m glad it’s finally getting the recognition it deserves.
Just last month, the government of Mozambique officially created a new marine protected area here, the largest in Africa.
The reserve protects more than 4,020 square miles of rich coral atolls, beaches and intact mangrove stands. This success is a testament to the hard work of our partners, WWF and CARE, as well as to the foresight of Mozambique’s government.
Every day that we headed out to the islands, I felt the same terror. Those waves — how would we ever get through? Somehow, though, our pilot read the shifting shoals so that we could weave through the waves and join an outgoing tide. We always reached calm, clear water on the other side.
While a lot of work remains, I congratulate and applaud WWF, CARE and the people of Mozambique for navigating past these first shoals and crashing waves. While I’ve probably had enough fried canned sausages for a lifetime, I will still pull out a sandy biscuit and a warm glass of Scotch to celebrate.December 12, 2012
David Banks is director of The Nature Conservancy's Africa program. He reports on special places, people and conservation issues in our series David's Dispatches.