Nuru’s Story

Listen on Spotify or read below:

Hi I’m Liz Drury O’Neill and welcome to the storytelling series as part of a podcast called “Characters of the closures: Human Experiences of Marine Conservation & Management”. This is our first story of the series, Nuru’s story. This series is part of the OctoPINTS project which I’m working on as part of my postdoc at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Disclaimer (for those listening not reading!) I have a bit of a cold, so you might hear a few sniffles throughout this recording, sorry.

I decided to have a go at telling a few stories based on my research data because recently during these Covid times I’ve got a bit sick of zoom and powerpoint and break out rooms and I really kind of wanted to engage in communicating science in a different more maybe natural but also more real or authentic and immersive way. I’ve been listening to Irish mythology stories a lot on Spotify in the last two years (Candlelit Tales) and then it struck me, sure why not take storytelling into my work. 

So each month for the next few months I will share a story of a character from a marine fishing village on the Swahili Coast, the coastline that stretches from southern Somalia down to northern Mozambique in East Africa, where we have been doing fieldwork. The villages are  based in Zanzibar in the centre of this coastline, so its a tropical island environment, with coral reef-mangrove-seagrass marine ecosystems. They are very much dependent on the ocean for nutrition and livelihoods.

The different characters of my stories experience an increasingly common fishery management  and conservation intervention, a fishery closure- the one we work with is based on octopus. Fishery closures or marine protected areas are more and more common as they are relied upon to help us meet the sustainable development goals for 2030 and protect life underwater. But life on land in many areas around the world is very much part of these conservation initiatives, which aim to encourage and assist people who live and rely on the sea to manage and conserve their natural resources. I decided to bring our fieldwork to life a bit to try and represent the richness of the human experience within conservation. Hopefully marine protected areas can become more of an understandable human experience to us who don’t live them.

All the stories that I create are based on the voices, opinions, perspectives and arguments of fieldwork participants, so I am prioritising what they say and how they say it through fictional characters, so my participants remain anonymous. 

To introduce you to the characters in the stories;

  • We have fisherwomen who will fish in shallow waters by foot using sticks and spears, not going out of their depth, 
  • We also have foot fishermen who will do the same but who spend most of their time on boats using other gears. 
  • Our main octopus fishers, so those who target octopus the most are the skin divers, they are free divers using masks, fins and spears. 
  • The octopus is sold to male traders who will typically keep it on ice or freeze it and through agents and companies export it to portugal or italy or other places in the EU.
  • And then we have different types of traderwomen, they can fry the octopus and sell bits of it in the village, they also can make really good octopus soup, again for sale in the village, they are dealing with much smaller amounts of octopus compared to the male traders. 
  • Then we have the fishing committee, they are from the villages and are the local officials responsible for fishery management. 
  • There is an NGO that is supporting the villages in this conservation measure 
  • And then there is the village leader, the Sheha.

After listening and talking to almost 70 octopus fishers, traders and local fishery committees across three villages in Zanzibar I found that the most pertinent topic was the breaking of rules. So this is a story about fishery compliance, what that is and what that means for different people. Compliance, or non-compliance, in marine protected areas like closures is important because it’s one of the main reasons such conservation projects don’t work out in the long-term. But it’s hard to study due to its clandestine nature. Marine protected areas have both positive and negative effects on people’s livelihoods. Therefore they are contested or disputed spaces, meaning different things to different people so compliance is not black and white in this context. I try to represent that here.

Nuru’s Story

Nuru first heard about octopus closures “Ufungaji” from her Mother, who also spends time in the intertidal zone fishing both octopus and other sea creatures, like catfish and eels. Her mother told her about her own childhood when the elders of the village used to close the coast one or two times a year for three months, usually during the cold season, for occasions like Maulid. People paid a levy for their catch and this went as service to the village, so that octopus would be plenty and there was income to create the festivities for all. During these closed times nobody could be seen with an octopus, not even a small one, if you went against the rules, the octopus could hurt you, magic could be used against you. If you took one without consent you could turn into a spirit or be stuck in the corals and drown. 

Last year word went around the village that there was a meeting to be held by the Shehia fishing committee and the Sheha, the village leader, and everyone was welcome. Nuru was very curious about what was happening and eagerly went with her two neighbours, who were also her fellow female fishing comrades. They, and many of the other women in their village were always ready to join community meetings. At this big meeting there were many different people with a stake in the marine environment- a diverse range of fishers, traders, octopus fryers and seaweed farmers. The big people or leaders at the meeting introduced this new project that was about to take place- it was about octopus closures. Nuru wasn’t sure who the guests were but a footfisherman told her it was the “conservation people” and they had a project “mradi” and this meant they were going to get something. Then she remembered she had seen a poster about octopus on her way to the daycare one day to collect the youngest of her three kids. At the meeting there was a lot of hand raising by footfishermen, male skin divers and traders. Discussions were heated about what cutting off parts of the reef meant for the fishing and trading business. Eventually it seemed people agreed to give this project a go, though Nuru wasn’t sure exactly how it would work. She saw others like her brother who was a young skin diver and many of the male footfishers were not fully happy. At the meeting the visitors and the fishing committee explained the process and the main rules- it seemed the committee were already trained and knowledgeable thanks to these conservation people. As she and her neighbours walked home they had mixed feelings, would they still be able to access productive reefs or their seaweed farms? 

The fishing committee closed the coastline at the next spring tide, lots of people in the village were talking about how this project would work. A fisherman told her that the fishing committee was going around putting up posters and explaining things about the closure, smaller meetings were held. When the next spring tide came around, her and her colleagues headed out fishing, they walked past the closed zone and talked about how big the octopus will be after a few months, their debts can be paid and the mosque might get a new roof, how exciting if we can all benefit. They smiled to themselves and headed out in the water, their eyes searching for octopus dens and spears ready to jab. 

That afternoon when she got home, her husband, a trader who sold to european octopus export, told her that there were rumours of the closure guards letting men into the closed area at night, even guiding them to where the octopus were and getting something in return. This made Nuru angry and when she told her neighbours they were also furious. If we are closing we need to all tolerate it together, it hurts when we keep together and don’t fish and then those few go against. Us who do the work don’t benefit in the end. Her neighbours told her then about others who were also stealing over the last weeks- mainly men. Men are so arrogant she thought, this is insulting to us fisherwomen, if the octopus is yours, god will give it to you. 

Finally the first opening day came, Nuru was up early and had the kids fed, washed and ready to go as the sun rose. She found out the day before when the fishing committee had announced the sea would be open at 8am. Her and her fellow fisherwomen rushed down to the beach. They exclaimed- the beach was fulllll with people, visitors from town, neighbours from the village on the mainland and relatives of her community. They weren’t sure what to think, but it was joyous to see this opening as a big occasion. 

However, much to Nuru and her fellow friends’ annoyance there were already skin divers out on the horizon. As they waded out into the water, not beyond their thighs, they saw that many octopus dens were already empty. They looked out to the deeper waters at the agile fit divers feeling hurt and frustrated. Later back at the beach when they were getting their octopus weighed she saw her brother the skin diver. Your diver friends, they come to destroy, they disappoint, they can get where others cant, its not fair, we all need to stay hungry together and tolerate. Her brother replied that the divers feel this blame, they feel untrusted, are people jealous of their skill and ability? Or that they are few and footfishers are many? They depend on the octopus landings more than anyone. 

As the reef was closed and opened again over the next year poaching and rule breaking continued to cause issues in the community. At her table banking group with other fisherwomen and women octopus fryers and soup vendors they often discussed how unclear it was what happened to these boys that were poaching and removing all the big octopus from their grasp. 

Eventually after another opening where many women and old people didn’t land very much octopus as a result of the stealing and lack of repercussions a community meeting was called. One traderwoman raised her hand and asked. But why break the rules anyway if not breaking them will lead to lots of big octopus, money for the community and cash from selling in pocket. Many different people agreed that  human nature is the biggest motivator- the selfishness, greed, impatience, the temptation. Thieves only think of themselves. You might not plan to steal but you pass a big octopus in the closed area. It’s difficult to land anything from the open area. Rule breakers might do so because they need to, for their families, there are not many jobs around for the younger generation here. People are not paying the fines, so if one steals and nothing happens, many follow. Others may not really understand or get what the closure is about, how it can benefit them. People comply with the closure according to their own goals. Nuru listened to all the opinions shared. Rule breaking is the thorn in the side of many, she thought.  A skin diver continued that it was not only by those within the village but by migrating fishers with destructive nets and our neighbours who sneak into the closures at night. These outsiders should be properly dealt with first. 

Listen, an elder fisherwomen said as she stood up to address the group. People stay hungry for the duration of closures and other fish. It’s not fair. Those who steal will also land the most at openings. In a village of 400 people only 12 will steal, it’s not fair, everyone else is sitting waiting. The village cannot move forward. Conflict builds up and relationships are soured. The reefs need to be protected though, there is a difference when they are closed, the project should happen. People nodded silently in agreement as the sheha, the leader stood up to call the meeting to a close.