21 February 2013
Last updated at 11:23
Three times a week, a group of commercial fishermen sails to sea from an old Mombasa port in Kenya. They head south in a small boat to the deep waters off Tanzania’s Pemba Island in search of swordfish, marlin, tuna and shark. Journalist Jason Patinkin recently joined the crew for a two-day trip.
The fishermen met at midnight in a driftwood shack by the beach. Salted shark meat hung from the rafters and the men rested on piles of nets, smoking and gathering gear - food and water; fuel and bait; broken chair legs for firewood and plenty of warm clothing. They loaded it into dugout canoes and paddled it aboard.
The boat set out before dawn, motoring past the walls of Fort Jesus, an old Portuguese battlement. With little space on the 28ft (8.5m) craft, the six-member crew took turns sleeping under the bow or atop fishing line in the hold while others cooked over a fire by the tiller.
The captain, Abdillahi Qassim, is from Somalia. "I started fishing with my uncles when I was eight, diving for lobster,” he said. He fled violence in his hometown of Kismayo in 2008 for a Kenyan refugee camp, but soon returned to the ocean at Mombasa. “I missed the work and the weather. I’m a captain. I know nothing else."
Two baited lines trailed behind the boat to catch dorado, also called mahi-mahi or dolphinfish, for dinner. At noon, they turned from the coast toward the open sea. There was no GPS, but the crew knew the way. Mobile phones helped too: Automatic texts about rate changes meant we had entered Tanzanian waters. When all signals disappeared, we were in international waters.
At 2pm the Muslim crew members paused for afternoon prayers. They washed their feet and hands from a jug of fresh water and prayed sitting down - no space to kneel. Then everyone gathered for a lunch of rice and goat stew. By then the boat was well beyond sight of land.
An hour later, it was time to set the longline. It took two hours of hard, fast work for the crew to feed it into the water. They hooked chunks of frozen fish to dangling branch-lines and attached buoys at regular intervals to keep it afloat.
Ten metres at a time, they fed the line overboard. Captain Abdillahi held the tiller and made sure everything went smoothly and quickly. When it was done, the longline stretched for miles behind the boat. They would not know if they had caught anything until the lines were hauled in the next morning.
The engine was then cut and the vessel began to drift. The sun set and the crew relaxed. The wind picked up, and waves crashed onto the deck. “If anything happens,” said crewman Willie Kombo, “there’s nothing you can do.” After dinner, they slept in the hold, the only time everyone rested at once.
Capt Abdillahi woke the crew at 1am to pull in the lines. After a few hours, they caught the night’s first fish, a yellowfin tuna weighing over 170lb. It took three men to flip it on deck where it flapped and bled out. At $2 (£1.26) or $3 per pound, tuna get the best prices in Mombasa.
At dawn, they caught a 7ft mako shark, valuable for its meat, liver and fins, a delicacy in some parts of the world, particularly in China for soup. The crew held it steady while Mr Kombo bashed its head with a tire iron. Activists blame fin trading for falling shark populations. In some countries “shark finning” – the removing of shark fins at sea and discarding the body - is illegal. In Kenya, it is legal to sell shark meat.
Masud Rashid, the boat’s owner, who was not aboard, said later that international regulations have dampened the Kenyan market. “The price of fins was up to $150,” he said. “Now, [it’s] $80.” As the crewmen were pulling in the lines, an armed security ship protecting vessels exploring for oil started casing the boat. Fishermen are often mistaken for Somali pirates. Capt Abdillahi has been arrested in the past for that reason.
The shark was their last catch. It was a poor outing, but the mood brightened when Capt Abdillahi ordered a sail raised. Many of the crew grew up sailing dhows. One crewman, a deaf and mute man called Bubu, has spent nearly his whole life at sea. Mr Rashid found Bubu as a homeless child and raised him as a son, teaching him everything he knew about fishing.
The crew headed back for Mombasa, four hours away. This trip was one of the last times they would fish the waters off Pemba. A few weeks later, the government declared the area off limits to allow for oil exploration. “This fishing ground is lost,” said Mr Rashid, who has been longlining from Mombasa for 20 years. “So now I’m going north" to Lamu, further up the Kenyan coast towards Somalia, until the oil exploration ends, he said.
Back at port after 36 hours at sea, they weighed and sold the fish and split the profits. On good days, each man earns $30. With only the tuna and shark, they took $7 apiece, less than $4 a day. They then had 12 hours to relax before sailing again at dawn, chasing the hard life of a Kenyan fisherman. (By Jason Patinkin)