Michelle Wong, an EcoGastronomy Major at UNH and a longtime friend of Island Creek is on assignment for us in Zanzibar. She will be blogging about her time in Stonetown, the women she is meeting and her impressions of this far-away place. Michelle’s mission is to visit chefs at local restaurants and resorts to promote the use of the shellfish that will someday be generated by the village hatcheries ICOF and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are developing.
The woman reaches down and plucks the octopus from the reef, its writhing appendages curling and twisting around her wrist like a string of prayer beads, fighting back. In one swift motion, she takes the long metal spike in her other hand and drives it into the underbelly of the octopus and through the top of its head. A thick stream of ink flows from the animal clenched in her fist, staining the shallow water around our feet an unsettling black. “Chakula kitamu” I joke, “Good food”. The now-still octopus is plopped into an old rice bag along with the assortment of other sea creatures that the woman has collected that morning – small fish, spurting sea cucumbers, snails in intricate shells, cockles, crabs and oysters. By the time the tide rolls in, she expects to have about 10,000 Tanzanian Shillings (TSH) or $6.25 USD worth of product to sell to the locals and middlemen who travel to the fishing village, Fumba every day to buy fresh seafood at a good price. We part ways and I continue towards the dugout canoe anchored at the edge of the reef, tiptoeing around hundreds of devious sea urchins nestled in the coral like landmines. Today, my guide and I are the guests of a local fisherman and pearl farmer who will show us his pearling operations. To get to the fisherman’s boat we must walk across about a quarter of a mile of young coral reef, which crunches under our feet like broken glass. My stomach turns guiltily.
The pearling and jewelry project is funded by a few groups in the United States including the University of Rhode Island. Large oysters are collected and implanted with three plastic “buttons”. The imbued oysters are then placed in mesh cages that hang from floating lines attached to moorings. Every few days the oysters are scrubbed down and cleaned, and nine months later, shimmering semi-spherical pearls are ready to be made into necklaces and earrings by the village women who can get about 30,000 TSH ($18.75 USD) for each piece – the equivalent of what many island families make in two weeks. Seashells collected from surrounding villages are also incorporated into the jewelry pieces.
The thought I can’t shake however, is how focused the Fumba villagers – the intended beneficiaries of the hatchery seed, are on jewelry making versus farming. In some ways our project is in direct compeition with the jewelry/pearl project for the villagers’ attention, time, and interest. Jewelry making and pearling are smart, supplementary industries but they don’t do anything to solve the crux of the problem and the reason why people turned to jewelry in the first place; depletion of wild shellfish stocks. I think back to the woman I met on the reef. Although she might make some decent money for her harvest, she wasn’t able to find even one kilo of each species, only finding a handful of each. This method of harvesting also involves walking over and ultimately damaging coral reef which is an incredibly delicate and important part of the ecosystem.
While jewelry does provide the villagers with money, it doesn’t directly feed them like aquaculture. Maybe a happy partnership can be forged between these two related projects with a majority of the hatchery seed being used for consumption and the remaining fraction being used for pearls. Shellfish farming – heck, all farming in general – requires tremendous patience. And for people who live off of less than $5 a day, who are hungry today, patience must seem like a lot to ask. But with a little patience, foresight, and creativity, big problems can be solved with some pretty exciting, big solutions.