Maputo — A "rapid and catastrophic" fall in marine life off Mozambique has led to warnings from some of Africa's leading biologists that a number of species could be "lost within a generation".
According to the US-based Marine Megafauna Foundation, sightings of manta rays in the Mozambique Channel have fallen almost 90 per cent. Their cousin, the devil ray, has been all-but wiped out.
Between them, Madagascar and Mozambique have licensed hundreds of Asian and European Union (EU) boats to fish the waters, while buyers drive the coastal roads, offering cash for shark fins -- a delicacy in China -- and bones from manta rays. As with rhino horn, gill cartilage from mantas is used in Asian medicine.
Activists say locals venture from the beach with nets, catching fish but also rays, sharks and the rare dugong, a mammal that gave rise to the myth of mermaids.
In Mombasa, Kenyan marine biologist, Dr. Melita Samoilys, is a director of CORDIO, a research NGO for the western reach of the Indian Ocean.
She was lead author of a recent paper on Mozambique and its fish, and said little would change while the country suffered, "high levels of poverty and illiteracy in coastal communities".
She said there was a need for patrols at sea and on land, "but too often coastal fishers are blamed when, really, they have little alternative."
She said poverty lay at the heart of the problem.
"At the same time the decision to allow foreign fishing fleets offshore was largely financial and made with no consultation with coastal communities. And these catches are rarely monitored, so they fish with impunity."
Dr. Samoilys said the world was shifting attention to the oceans, "but action on the ground is slow."
At the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) office in Cape Town, Craig Smith said the Mozambique Channel was one of the "most bio-diverse hot spots on the planet".
Mr. Smith who works on WWF projects for the western Indian Ocean called for "urgent, collective and decisive intervention," across the region, including South Africa. He said climate change was compounding the problem.
In Durban, Dr. Jean Harris -- director of the NGO Wild Oceans-- called for an immediate review of "foreign fleet agreements".
"We have EU and Asian vessels in African waters, some licensed and others not.
"We need an audit of how this is impacting our stocks, especially where unselective methods like long-line fishing and net trawling are used."
She said some of the European ships received subsidies from the EU, and "are here because they have already fished out their own waters".
$60 loss for Mozambique
It is estimated that Mozambique loses $60m a year in illegal fishing. But when the country set out to buy its own trawlers, and patrol craft to intercept poachers, the deal was marred by allegations of corruption. A case brought by the US Justice Department is currently underway in New York.
Vic Cockcroft is a Zimbabwean researcher who has worked on dugongs along the coast of East Africa where he says numbers have fallen 99 per cent since 1960, though Mozambique still has a viable population.
These plant-eating mammals get caught accidentally in nets or are hunted for meat despite legal protection.
"There is a critical need to police and monitor places like the Channel," Mr. Cockcroft said.
"The problem is, fish and marine creatures don't respect borders. They swim where they wish and, when stocks are being hit in one area, some of the casualties will be temporary migrants who don't make it home. That is true of Mozambique, where poaching has impacted on both South Africa and Tanzania."
In Mombasa, Dr. Samoilys said marine animals deserved the same protection as those on land.
Control of waterways
"In many ways, East Africa spawned the modern concern over poaching," she said. "It was the ivory trade out of Mombasa that made headlines in the 1970s, and our national parks like the Serengeti and Masai Mara are now household names.
"Sadly the crisis off our coast gets nowhere near that level of publicity. Kenya and South Africa have relatively good control of their waters, but the situation is much more difficult in places like Mozambique."
Mr. Cockcroft agreed.
"The oceans around Africa need to become a global cause," he said. "That's what happened with threatened species like tiger, cheetah and gorillas.
"But, we have very little time."