Meet the Small Fishing Community Regrowing Coral Reefs in Kenya

As fishers on Wasini Island began seeing the effects of coral ecosystem degradation, including declining catches, they revived an age-old tradition of conservation to replant and protect their reef.

Written by Anthony Langat Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Wasini Island’s community learns coral rehabilitation techniques.Jelvas Mwaura, Kenyar Marine and Fisheries Research Institute

WASINI ISLAND, Kenya – Fishing has always been the way of life on this tiny strip of land off the shores of southeast Kenya.

Rashid Mohamed, 68, chairman of one of Wasini Island’s two villages, recalled the days of his childhood when fishers used small dhows and traditional fishing gear. Back then, people avoided fishing the island’s rich corals. They knew that’s where fish, such as rabbitfish and white snapper, bred. They called these places tengefu, Swahili for “set aside” or “protected.”

But a younger generation began using big motor boats and modern methods of fishing, such as destructive blast fishing, killing corals. “The boats and the nets that were used in the past did not contribute so much to the destruction of corals,” Mohamed said. The traditional importance of coral reef conservation was also lost over time. To earn more money, fishers moved into places which were informally protected by their forefathers, he said.

Dead coral rocks on the eastern shores of Wasini Island, Kenya, show the long, rich history of the region’s coral ecosystem. (Anthony Langat)

This dynamic, the community decided a few years ago, wasn’t sustainable. East Africa has suffered from major coral reef losses over the past two decades, including major bleaching events in 1998 and 2016. These declines have threatened important services that reefs provide – fish habitats, tourist attractions and storm and wave barriers.

In Wasini Island’s Vumba village, large dead coral rocks in the shape of mushrooms dot the eastern shores and extend into the sea, indicators of the islands long and rich history of coral growth. Mangrove trees, some recently replanted by women in the village, add to the lush environment around a boardwalk and coral garden intended as a tourist attraction. But the living reefs haven’t been doing so well. On the island of about 3,500 people, fishers speak of falling stocks and having to now sail farther to find their catch. Tourist boat operators have seen fewer customers.

“These vital ecosystems are increasingly facing serious threats from a multitude of stressors, including overfishing, destructive fishing practices, nutrient pollution as well as ocean warming linked to global climate change, and, as a result, they show declining long-term trends,” said Jelvas Mwaura, a marine ecologist at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.

Wasini Island is a small island just off the coast of the mainland town of Shimoni, Kenya. (Google Maps)

Over the past six years, however, residents of Wasini’s villages have turned over a new leaf to secure their livelihoods by replanting damaged coral reefs and taking action to end destructive fishing. Their successful community conservation work could serve as a model for elsewhere in the region, even if it won’t address all of the increasingly complex problems faced by fragile coral ecosystems.

The project began in 2012, when state agencies – with the help of funding from the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program – engaged local residents on the restoration of the coral reefs. At first, Ahmed Abubakar, chairman of the Wasini Island Beach Management Union, thought the idea too ambitious. Reef replanting was a largely untested concept in Africa.

“I had never heard of replanting of coral reefs. No one here had, and we thought it was going to be difficult,” said Abubakar.

That was six years ago, before he led the on-the-ground work of an elaborate community conservation project on the western side of the island, facing the mainland town of Shimoni.

A degraded coral reef area with no or few corals and no fish. (Jelvas Mwaura, Kenyar Marine and Fisheries Research Institute)

Despite gloomy skies and a slight drizzle on a recent morning, Shimoni is bustling. The seafront fish market is a hive of activity as fresh catch is weighed and packed for transport. At the end of the boardwalk facing Wasini Island, a small boat docks and about 10 fishers scale the staircase in turns, ferrying their live catch to a waiting truck, where it is stored in polythene bags. “It is a slow day in Shimoni because of the weather and many fishermen have not gone fishing today,” said Sharif Makame, a tour guide.

Fishers, however, are now careful to avoid a 3 square km (1.2 square mile) section of the sea, now visibly marked by floaters to deter intrusion by boats, which would lead to destruction of the newly planted reefs. The community has also mobilized to end banned fishing practices, such as blast fishing, in the larger reef area. The beach management unit, for example, has helped fishers acquire proper nets and has stepped up stricter enforcement, said Abubakar.

Replanting the coral reefs is a technical process with 12 steps, he said. It is largely led by the beach management unit’s 242 members, most of whom are fishers but can also include anybody, such as boat builders, fishmongers, shell collectors and tourist hotel managers. (Kenya’s government requires all fishers to belong to such a beach management unit to manage fish stocks in accordance with national law.)

Scientists from Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and the Kenya Wildlife Service conducted training. To replant the coral reefs, corals first raised in nurseries until they matured were then transplanted to the restoration site. But because different corals need different restoration sites with favorable growth conditions, the first step was to set aside a replanting area.

Rashid Mohamed, at his home in Wasini Island, Kenya. (Anthony Langat)

This was to be the island’s new tengefu, making a comeback after years of destruction. But it was difficult at first to get everyone to agree not to fish in the proposed area.

“We had to speak to many people, including men, women and the youth, and it took time before they could accept. It is difficult for one to just agree to stop fishing in a place he fishes in every day,” said Abubakar.

The fishers also had to be paid to help replant the reefs, because it would take time away from them earning their livelihood. Everyone received $12 a day to do the work. Between 2013 and 2017, the community planted 1,225 individual corals in the 3 square km area.

Abubakar said the corals have grown quickly and tourists visit the area and pay to snorkel. “The scientists were amazed at how fast the coral reefs grew because it surpassed the length of 4cm [1.5in] per year that they expected,” he said.

According to Mwaura, who has been involved in the restoration process as part of the team of scientists involved in the training, the restored reefs will also eventually benefit the people living along the coast. “These sheltered habitats further reduce the risk of coastal erosion, through stabilizing sediments, while also providing nursery habitats for the juveniles of economically important fish and invertebrate species,” he said. Abubakar and other fishers have already noticed an increase in fish stocks in the area.

Fishers offloading their catch on the mainland in Shimoni, Kenya. (Anthony Langat )

The project still faces plenty of challenges. In the beginning, for example, fishers used to sail right through their tengefu, damaging the restoration effort. With time, the organizers persuaded them to completely avoid the area.

And while the rapid destruction and slow natural recovery have necessitated interventions such as the one in Wasini Island, reefs will still continue to face other threats. During floods brought by heavy rains, for instance, high loads of soils and sediment transported offshore can threaten the corals. And as with other reefs worldwide, climate change poses the major threat to coral health, Mwaura said.

Still, if funds can be found, he hopes that similar active reef restoration efforts driven by communities can spread to neighboring areas along the Kenya coast.

“When natural recovery processes fail, it may become necessary to intervene in order to rehabilitate degraded reefs and restore ecosystem services,” he said.

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