By contributor Sean Carey
Sit on a beach in Mauritius and face the lagoon on a sunny day when the tide is out. Chances are you will see several young Creole men with harpoons or spears walking near the reef in search of fish of one sort or another.
Most of what they catch is eaten by their families, although they may sell some to hotels and restaurants in the vicinity. Put simply, such no-cost and freely available seafood is an important part of the diet and sometimes provides much-needed cash for low-income households.
In other parts of the island, there are a significant number of small fishing communities. Around 60 fish landing stations punctuate the 205 km coastline. Tamarin, in the south-west part of the island, part of the Riviere Noire district, is one such place. The village, which lies at the mouth of a river estuary, is gaining a global reputation for big-game fishing, dolphin watching and surfing. It has a significant working-class Creole population, and the menfolk typically make their livelihoods from artisanal fishing using small boats within and just outside the lagoon.
The big challenges for the Tamarin fishermen are to ensure the sustainability of fish stocks and to find ways of adding value to the catch. As elsewhere in Mauritius, fish are often sold on the beach-side by middlemen to people from other ethnic groups who make up the island’s near 1.3 million population – Hindu, Muslim, Chinese and French Mauritians – as well as tourists in self-catering accommodation.
When I visit Mauritius, I am struck by the difference in taste and texture of fish that has just been landed compared with fish which has been lying around in the heat for several hours, even when protected by the shade of a tree.
When I purchase pole- and- line or long-line caught yellowfin tuna at my local supermarket in the U.K., I marvel at its quality, especially when taking into consideration that the produce will have been caught either in the Pacific or Indian Ocean, airfreighted to Gatwick or Heathrow and then transported by trucks around the country. Although the tuna in the supermarket doesn’t quite match the condition of the fish that can be obtained before noon at the beach in Mauritius, it is very definitely better quality than fish purchased in the afternoon.
Why? The difference is all down to refrigeration.
Tamarin has been selected for a pilot project by the SmartFish Programme, which is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC). SmartFish has a budget of €6 million over two years, and its primary focus is both on the sustainable exploitation and monitoring of fishing resources in coastal, oceanic and freshwater locations and food and nutrition security.
The first meeting in June 2011 was held at Flic en Flac, a one-time sleepy fishing village lying a few miles north of Tamarin, which over the last 30 years has been transformed into the second biggest tourist destination in Mauritius. The event was attended by delegates from a host of organisations – for example, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO), the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), the Lake Tanganyika Authority (LTA), and the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO). Thankfully, the delegates wisely agreed to adopt the SmartFish brand name and logo rather than launch the programme with yet another anonymous and hard-to-remember acronym.
The initial results of SmartFish Programme have been impressive. The first tranche of money became available earlier this year, and the fishermen of Tamarin have now been supplied with insulated containers, which they can pack with ice from a machine capable of making one ton a day. The chilled fish can then be transported inland and sold in some of the main residential areas like Curepipe, Quatre Bornes and Vacoas.
The fishermen have also been taught to clean and process the fish, for example into fillets. Thus produce is ready for cooking for the time-poor members of Mauritius’s more affluent households, who would otherwise purchase prepared fish at local French and Chinese-owned supermarkets, or, perhaps, opt for a ready meal or takeaway.
On July 14, the next phase of the project will take place in the east of Mauritius at the village of Trou d’Eau Douce. It will then be extended to 20 countries in Eastern-Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean region including Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
SmartFish isn’t rocket science but it is a kind of fish science – and it looks set to make waves by empowering otherwise marginalised communities through better marketing.