Kenyan villagers show how to harvest more octopus by fishing less

  • Residents of Munje, a fishing village south of the Kenyan port of Mombasa, have established an octopus closure to ensure sustainable fishing.
  • Octopus catches in the reefs just offshore had been declining as larger numbers of fishers, often using damaging techniques, hunted this profitable species.
  • Previous attempts to regulate the octopus fishery had failed, but the village’s beach management unit enlisted support from an NGO to replicate successful strategies from elsewhere.
  • Clearer communication and patient consensus-building have secured buy-in from the community, and the village is anticipating a second successful harvest period in February.

MUNJE, Kenya — From the middle of 2023, a favored octopus fishing ground just offshore from the village of Munje was strangely empty. Members of the village’s beach management unit diligently kept watch to make sure no one fished that section of reef. At the end of October, Munje’s BMU took to the water to harvest the reward for their patience.

Munje is small fishing village on the Indian Ocean, 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of the port city of Mombasa. Its inhabitants depend on farming and fishing for food and income. Fishing for octopus, principally Octopus vulgaris, in the reefs is among the most profitable livelihoods.

But octopus had grown scarce because of overfishing and damage to the coral reefs where these cephalopods live. “During the days of our fathers there was lot of octopus here, but now when a fisher goes and comes back from the oceans, he returns with just 1 or 2 kilograms [2-4 pounds] of octopus,” Hamisi Bakari Chimete, the BMU chairman, told Mongabay in August. “This is the reason why we came up with the idea of secluding one of our fishing sites, to enable octopus to breed and replenish, and the corals reefs to regenerate.”

Detail of poster at the Munje BMU office illustrating the octopus life cycle. An octopus closure allows the population time to regenerate between harvests. Image by Terna Gyuse for Mongabay.
Detail of poster at the Munje BMU office illustrating the octopus life cycle. An octopus closure allows the population time to regenerate between harvests. Image by Terna Gyuse for Mongabay.

Fishing less to harvest more

Every fishing community in Kenya has a beach management unit, a committee of residents charged with managing and protecting the community’s marine resources. Munje’s BMU decided on an octopus closure, setting aside a designated area of the sea to be left undisturbed, and opening it up for fishing for just a few days every three or four months.

The closure allows the octopus population inside the zone to recover. During the span of a closure, eggs newly laid in protected crevices of the reef will hatch, and those juvenile invertebrates will grow rapidly to nearly their full size in time for the opening of the brief fishing period.

Managed well, the closure should result in an increased catch of octopus, and other species that benefit from the protection of the closure, improving fishers’ livelihoods as well as the health of the fisheries.

Easier said than done

Munje had attempted this before. But, according to Chimete, many in the community didn’t understand why this section of the reef should be closed off to them. The closure wasn’t respected, and fishers, including growing numbers of inexperienced youngsters drawn to a profitable fishery, continued catching octopus in the closure zone, sometimes damaging the reef by using inappropriate fishing techniques.

The BMU leadership found experienced help for a fresh attempt at one of the many public forums organized by the Kwale county government. In 2021, they encountered an NGO, Coastal and Marine Resource Development, a Kenyan organization that works with 15 BMUs in Kwale and neighboring Kilifi county. COMRED, as it’s known, focuses on participatory processes that connect science and management through leadership training, fisheries monitoring, and establishing and supporting locally managed marine areas.

“Our first octopus closure failed because the community had not been sensitized enough to take this project as their own,” Chimeta said. “Many fishers were against it as they said that this is a government project to turn closure area into conservancy.” With COMRED’s support, the BMU set about building community support for a new octopus closure.

Kitsau Chengo Msukulu standing in shallow water, bent over rinsing octopuses he's just speared on the reef further out from shore. Image by Diana Wanyonyi for Mongabay.
Kitsau Chengo Msukulu, a fisherman and member of Munje’s beach management unit, was initially opposed to the octopus closure. Image by Diana Wanyonyi for Mongabay.

Maryline Chebet, COMRED’s project officer for fisheries management, told Mongabay that fishers often fear that proposing an octopus closure means they’ll be permanently excluded from the designated fishing ground, as is the case when marine parks are declared. But the protection of this reef off Munje is controlled by the BMU which will review results and decide for itself how long to maintain the rhythm of closure and periodic fishing.

“We took some of the community members for a peer-learning exchange to a community in Lamu, where they have established an octopus closure successfully,” she said.

“After the peer-learning visit, the community members now, together with COMRED, embarked on doing very serious sensitization to various groups within the BMU, that is, fishermen who use different fishing gear, the community members, neighboring BMUs, and this was done through consensus-building meetings, community baraza [public meetings].”

Salim Juma Shee was a leading voice in a group of 20 fishers who strongly opposed the closure.

“Among my team, I was the only one who used to regularly attend meetings about octopus closure at the BMU office. I never missed one, but I didn’t agree with what they were talking about,” he said. “I have a family that depends on me, my main job is fishing, but now they were saying we should not fish?”

One of his objections was a lack of information about how the closure would work and where people like him would still be allowed to fish; the area proposed for closure was less than the size of a football field — 4,000 square meters (2.5 acres) — but was among the richest fishing grounds on the coast.

“One day, the BMU invited us, the fishers who were against the closure. But out of 20, only two of us showed up: me and my younger brother. They talked to us in detail about the importance of protecting the area, and that is when we both changed our minds and started championing for the cause,” Shee said.

Shee became one of a team of 10 who monitored and protected the designated zone. His role was to dive on the reef and examine it for signs of damage or ill health. Fishers from the village had to fish in other areas.

Some in the village said the closure forced them to make more significant changes. They said they turned to farming, growing fast-maturing varieties of maize and millet and traditional vegetables like kale to feed their families and replace lost income. Fishmonger Mwanaharusi Ali, said the closure forced her to make even more substantial changes. She told Mongabay that she principally sold octopus, but with the fishery closed, she was forced to travel 20 km (12 mi) to buy fish in a neighboring town.

“I used to pay 500 Kenyan shillings [$3] each way [for transport] because the high prices of fuel. It was very expensive, because the fare costs more than the money I have left to buy fish. I had to sacrifice,” she said. “And when I return with stock, I am mixed up because I don’t know how to slice the fish to sell and earn enough to cover the fare I used and to make a profit as well.”

Chebet said most fishmongers sell multiple species, and as the closure applies to just one small part of the village’s fishing ground, there should be other fish to sell, or octopus caught in other areas.

Three members of the beach management unit carrying a white plastic crate full of octopus across a mudflat to the beach. Image by Diana Wanyonyi for Mongabay.
Members of the Munje BMU carry some of the bumper catch to shore: 650 kilos of octopus were caught over three days of fishing in October. Image by Diana Wanyonyi for Mongabay.

Early signs of success

The weather on the Saturday in October chosen for the first opening of Munje’s octopus fishery was a mixture of sunshine and rain falling on the tin roofs and coconut and mango trees bearing plenty of unripe fruit. It seemed that almost everyone in the village was at the shore.

The ocean was calm at low tide. Sea cucumbers, fish fingerlings and sea urchins were visible on the beach. Children ran everywhere, and older people joined guests under a tent to watch younger women performing traditional songs and dances. Others were busy on the beach, receiving buckets full of octopus from fishers out on the water.

All the fishing was being done by members of the beach management unit. When the catch is sold, the profits will be divided between a fund for community welfare (30%), members of the BMU (30%), money to sustain the BMU’s office (20%), and the fishers who actually catch the octopus (20%).

Kassim Ali Siwa paddled his dugout onto the beach just after noon, loaded down with octopus. He, too, was initially opposed to the closure, but now said he’s happy that he came around to supporting it.

“I caught many octopus, I went fishing at 9 a.m. in the morning and I returned at 20 minutes past noon,” he said. “I have caught more than 30 kilograms [66 lbs] of octopus; before the closure, I used to fish between 1.5-2 kilograms [3-4 lbs] of octopuses.”

Over three days, the BMU’s members harvested 650 kilos of octopus. The fishers took some of this home to eat themselves, but most of the catch was sold, fetching roughly $1,200 from eager buyers.

The octopus closure at Munje was off to a strong start. The fishing community is looking forward to a second fishing period in February.

Fisheries monitors bent over a table measuring and weighing octopus caught off the village of Munje. Image by Diana Wanyonyi for Mongabay.
Fisheries monitors measuring octopus caught off Munje during the Oct. 2023 opening: the beach management unit is recording data from its octopus fishery with support from the NGO COMRED. Image by Diana Wanyonyi for Mongabay.


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Banner image: Kassim Ali Siwa, octopus fisherman, Munje, Kenya. Image by Diana Wanyonyi for Mongabay.