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Conservation efforts bring rich dividends

Kenya's fishermen maintain balance between use, protection of biodiversity

By EDITH MUTETHYA in Watamu, Kenya | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-28 09:44

A rescue team releases an endangered sea turtle into the sea at the Watamu National Marine Park in Kenya in August. LOCAL OCEAN CONSERVATION

The community-led projects initiated along the Kenyan coastline to find a balance between use and conservation, and fishermen's needs today and their fate tomorrow, are bearing fruit.

As delegates from more than 180 nations gather in Nairobi this week for the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, with protecting biodiversity a major topic of discussion, these coastal communities have shown they are able to sustainably earn their living without overexploitation of living marine resources.

Watamu, a small town in Kilifi County about 108 kilometers north of the port city of Mombasa, boasts clean beaches, rich and diverse bird life, dugongs, turtles and fish, thanks to community-led conservation efforts.

Turtle conservation is one of the key community-led projects along Watamu coastline. It's run by the Local Ocean Conservation, a nonprofit organization committed to the protection of Kenya's marine environment.

Started in 1997, the project consists of a nest monitoring and protection program, a bycatch net release program, and a specialist rehabilitation center for sick and injured sea turtles. Bycatch is the portion of a commercial fishing catch that comprises marine animals caught unintentionally.

Nest monitoring involves patrolling the beaches day and night by a dedicated team from the local community to protect the female sea turtles coming to nest, their eggs and their hatchlings from predators like crabs and birds. They also relocate nests that are at risk from natural or human dangers.

"When a nest is hatching, we make sure as many turtles as possible make it to the ocean. Many die before getting into the water because they are eaten by crabs and birds," Teresia Njeri, marine education coordinator at the Local Ocean Conservation, said.

She said turtles are not carried back to the ocean because doing so would interfere with their memory, so they are allowed to make their own way. Once they are fully grown, turtles head back to where they were born to mate.

"We usually make runways for them so that they follow one route instead of dispersing all over," she said.

Njeri said turtles are indicators of a healthy marine ecosystem, and the reason they are conserving them. They help in maintaining the balance in the ecosystem.

Green turtles graze on seagrass beds thus increasing productivity and nutrient content of the beds, benefiting other species in the food web.

Leatherback turtles, on the other hand, feed on jellyfish, thus controlling them. Jellyfish feed on fish larvae, hence they can wipe out the fish population when they are in high numbers.

Additionally, nutrients left behind by decomposing eggshells or hatchlings that die benefit coastal vegetation. Hawksbill turtles aid reefs by eating sponges that compete with them for space.

On the bycatch and release program, the organization works closely with the fishermen and the Kenya Wildlife Service.

"In case of accidental catch of turtles, the fishermen call us to go and rescue them. If it's a healthy turtle, we assess, tag and release it back to the ocean. The tagging helps in case the turtle is stuck in another country," she said.

Njeri said they give incentives to fishermen who bring accidentally caught turtles to the organization.

To date, more than 23,218 turtle rescues have been conducted with the collected data providing insights into turtle behavior and physiology.

Sick and injured turtles are monitored and nursed back to health at the organization's rehabilitation center and then returned to the ocean. The facility also serves as an educational tool for local and international visitors.

More than 810 patients have been treated at the facility so far, with afflictions ranging from exhaustion and minor injuries from fishing nets and hooks to severe spear gun puncture wounds and predation injuries.

Habitat restoration

About 7 kilometers from the Local Ocean Conservation, another community is running Dabaso Creek Conservation Group, a 46-member group, that focuses on crab fattening, beach cleaning, conservation education awareness, and habitat restoration. It also runs an eco-restaurant and boardwalk.

The group fattens crabs in a cage system under technical knowledge from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute. In this way, the demand for wild crabs is eased, contributing to the protection of local wild crab species.

Kahindi Charo, the group's marketing manager, said the crabs are fattened for at most two months in 20 structures, each holding 10 cages. Each cage holds one crab.

Initially, they sold the crabs to the local hotels but later on they established their own restaurant, The Crab Shack.

"We send fishermen to bring us crabs. We then sell the bigger ones in our restaurant and fatten the small ones in the cages. If a 300-gram crab is well-fed, within one month it doubles the weight," he said, adding that the demand is still higher than the supply especially during the Christmas holidays.

The Crab Shack restaurant is popular with tourists, who visit the place for seafood delicacies, including the popular crab samosas, and drinks as they watch sunset over Mida Creek.

The 32-square-kilometer broad water tidal creek is surrounded by extensive mangroves and lined with palms, and is one of the most beautiful natural attractions on the Kenyan coast.

Some of the profits from the restaurant go toward conservation of the creek's wildlife and mangroves.

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