28 July 2003, Aido Beach, Benin – Tiny fishing communities along this coconut palm-lined coast are engaged in scientific research that officials believe holds the key to the sustainable future of beach seine fishing.

The current seines, with their one-inch mesh, scoop up juvenile fish in the millions along with mature fish. It is estimated that a crate of undersize fish caught in the nets – widely used along the West African coast – if left to grow to maturity, would equal four crates a year later.

“As fishers, we were conscious that we were on the way to emptying the sea,” said Henri Hounna, leader of a group of 38 villagers in this community 50 kilometres west of the capital, Cotonou. Behind him on the beach, a crew of men and women play out the seine and three kilometres of line into the Atlantic, before spending the afternoon slowly pulling the net back to shore.

Fewer fish, but worth more
FAO’s Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme is supporting a research project in the Aido Beach community and others like it in neighbouring Togo and Ghana. Based on the principle that “seeing is believing”, the fishers are testing seines with two-inch mesh that leave undersize fish behind. With more room in the seine for mature fish, the nets catch a greater number of higher-value large fish, increasing the fishers’ income. The new nets are also cheaper and easier to pull in, since the smaller volume of material creates less drag.

The challenge is to convince conservative, risk-adverse small-scale fishing communities to switch to the new nets. Here is how the Programme plans to do it: the sustainable livelihoods approach promotes the principle of grassroots participation not only at the planning stage of development activities but throughout the process. Participating fishing groups are therefore testing the nets themselves for 18 months, with a technician living on the beach with them to measure the size and value of the catch. If the communities are convinced by the test results, ministries of fisheries will use them as a “peer-on-peer” sales force to convince neighbouring fishing communities to convert to the large-mesh seines.

Diversifying livelihoods
Preliminary results at Aido Beach are encouraging. In one month, using the new net, the group brought in 24 tonnes of fish in 9 outings, earning CFAF 873 526 (US$140). In the same month, a control group, using the small-mesh net, caught 30 tonnes of fish in 9 outings, but earned only CFAF 471 000 (US$75).

The results spell out good news for the environment, but the extra income divided among so many villagers is unlikely to reduce their poverty by much. The community has no electricity or dispensary, and villagers must carry fresh water 4.5 kilometres from the nearest tap. They live in huts made of palm fronds.

The Aido Beach community has always raised oysters in the nearby lagoon. As part of the Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme, which encourages communities to diversify and expand how they make a living, the project has taught improved production techniques. Villagers have also expanded a sideline of selling coconut meat to Nigerian biscuit factories.

Dreams of progress
Increased earnings, said one woman with six children, go to education and food for the household. “We save money for the hungry season, when there aren’t many fish,” said Victoire Ade-Agbo. “If there was enough money we could get drinking water piped in. That’s my dream, God willing.”

“We’ll help get the seine adopted by other communities that said no to taking part in the experiment,” said Mr Hounna, who appeared both confident and relieved at the end of the trial. “They believed it was a prelude to banning seines entirely. But our community got in first and now we’ll be further ahead because we’ll be used to the new net.”

Peter Lowrey
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 52762