The Quirimbas islands in northwestern Mozambique is the front line in the war on over-fishing.
IBO — "This is a protected sanctuary!"
Abdallah is shouting, as he swiftly makes a sharp turn in his boat. Moments later, he is reaching his arm out to grab the swimmer's crumpled snorkel mask, and then begins pulling in the fishing net attached to his swimsuit, filled with the day's illegal catch.
The unauthorized fisherman, an 18-year-old local, realizes too late he has been caught. "We have to seize everything, fishing here is prohibited," Shea Anli, who works alongside Abdallah, tells the teen. "I'm a ranger."
Other illegal fishermen, noticing the arrival of the marked boat, scramble to the shore. Abdallah catches two of them, and Anli sends them off with a warning: "It's illegal to fish in the nature reserve, don't come back here."
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scene in these islands, among one of the many marine sanctuaries of Quirimbas National Park in northern Mozambique, where fishing is banned.
The park's 1,500 square kilometers of islands — protected by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) — boast spectacular white sand beaches and a virtually untouched environment, with an extensive coral reef and marine wildlife including dugongs, dolphins, sea turtles, whales, sharks and over 375 different species of fish.
The islands' bewildering biodiversity is the reason why illegal fishing here is so popular, both among locals — who use traditional fishing practices aboard dhows, the outrigger canoes common in East Africa — and large commercial trawlers, who rarely show respect for marine sanctuaries.
Check your fish stocks
"They come from China, Tanzania and the Nampula region of Mozambique," says Anli, who has been a ranger for years. "Large ships shouldn't fish here and the coast guard should do something when they see them, but they don't have the means."
At the very least, the rangers' presence helps to prevent small-scale illegal fishing and to teach locals how to respect the protected areas. Today there are 102 park guardians, many of whom are also involved in an elephant conservation program on the park's small strip of mainland adjacent to the islands.
Ibo, Matemo and the other islands in the Quirimbas were once Portuguese colonies, and were not known as tourist destinations. Now they are part of a project named Pharo, designed to protect the park's coastal and marine habitats and foster economic development and food security on the islands.
The project includes education and training programs for local fishermen as well as a monitoring effort to combat illegal overfishing. There are 18 fishermen's councils — known as CCP in Portuguese — spread across the islands, with members elected to the assemblies from local communities. For too long, locals found it difficult to fish after intensive trawling decimated the area's stocks.
"Our role is to protect the fish stocks and marine sanctuaries," says Marjani Abdul Remane, village chief of Matemo island. "The whole community can be responsible, especially now that fishing has returned."
Still, agriculture in Ibo has been expanding in recent years due to the fishing downturn, especially production of honey from the mangroves and the prized local variety of coffee, Coffea racemosa Loureiro. The rare coffee plant has become popular for its intense herbal aroma and low levels of caffeine.
The project's final objective is to develop sustainable ecotourism in the islands. There are a few good hotels in the archipelago but they are all owned by foreigners, so tourism is heavily supported as an alternative to fishing, the only industry driving the local economy today. But with its untouched beauty and hospitable culture, interest in the Quirimbas archipelago is sure to grow.