As oceans empty, Kenya fishermen must adapt or disappear

"The ocean is our shamba": adapting the smart tactics of upcountry conservation to boost fishermen's livelihoods and safeguard Lamu's marine ecosystems

A press release from one of NRT's principal donors - The Nature Conservancy.

·      Overfishing drives people to use damaging fishing methods to try to earn a living

·      But new ways can increase income and preserve fish habitats: data proves that

·      New markets for sustainably-caught fish brings the economic incentive to adapt

A team of fishermen who swapped catching fish for conserving them have completed intensive underwater training to monitor coral reefs, the latest in a series of innovative new attempts to preserve Lamu's fragile environment.

A reef ranger takes notes on an underwater writing pad after snorkeling to collect data on coral reefs

A reef ranger takes notes on an underwater writing pad after snorkeling to collect data on coral reefs

Twelve 'reef rangers' spent four days learning to collect data on the state of coral reefs, which will be used to map their damage. Overfishing is stripping the ocean, but encouraging healthier reefs means better fish and more income for populations like Lamu's that rely on fishing to make a living.  

A reef ranger snorkeling a reef near Pate Marine Community Conservancy

A reef ranger snorkeling a reef near Pate Marine Community Conservancy

The training is part of a package of measures funded by The Nature Conservancy, a US-based global conservation organisation, and implemented by the Northern Rangelands Trust, or NRT, a Kenyan alliance of community conservancies including seven on the coast.

Tactics that the organisations developed in Laikipia and Samburu to safeguard pasture, preserve wildlife habitats, and give pastoralists who follow good grazing guidelines new markets for their livestock, are now being adapted for Lamu.

"Fishermen here tell us that the ocean is their shamba," said George Maina, The Nature Conservancy's Marine Projects Coordinator, who is based in Lamu. "Herders on land need to know how to preserve grass so their cows grow healthy and fetch more money at market. At sea, it's the same. The coral reefs are the 'pasture' for the fish. If they are well protected, then the fish are healthier and fetch more money at market.

"At the same time, protected reefs allow the marine biodiversity that has been badly affected by overfishing to recover, preserving both fishing stocks and reef health for future generations."

The reef rangers – eight from Kiunga Marine Community Conservancy and four from Pate Marine Community Conservancy – were taught how to swim with water-proof pencils and writing slates, which they used to note details of specified 'transects' of reef 50 metres long and five metres wide.

They counted the number and type of fish and marine invertebrates like octopuses; whether coral was alive, dead, or bleached; how much rubble there was, which indicates damaging fishing practices; and how much sea grass or sea algae there was. 

The information will be analysed to illustrate changes to the environment. The idea is to present fishermen with proof that following better fishing guidelines leads to larger catches and more money.

"The data we collect will show what types of fish there are, whether the are increasing or decreasing, and in which places, which helps us to know how to plan fishing better," says Omar Mohamed, 29, a former lobster fisherman and one of Kiunga Marine Community Conservancy's reef rangers. "Before I started as a ranger, finding my daily bread was becoming harder, and many people were fishing. Now I am assured of something at the end of the month, and my work helps preserve the fish for others."

Rangers also patrol on land. They monitor how much fish is brought ashore; watch for illegal activities including using banned equipment that damages underwater environments, or mangrove logging; report sea turtle nesting and wildlife sightings; count wildlife carcasses including those poached; and keep track of human-wildlife conflict.

OceanWORKS gives fisherman access to equipment such as ice boxes, to enable them to earn higher incomes from bigger fish

OceanWORKS gives fisherman access to equipment such as ice boxes, to enable them to earn higher incomes from bigger fish

Another key programme from NRT's commercial arm, NRT Trading, that The Nature Conservancy supports is called OceanWORKS. It is designed to earn fisherman higher incomes by helping them with equipment and links to lucrative new markets if they follow good fishing guidelines. Already 50 hook-and-line fishermen based around Pate Island are involved, with plans to expand the pilot programme to more than 1,500 people soon.

Boat crews are given large cooler boxes filled with ice, and trained how to fish deeper waters with hooks and lines instead of nets, to catch the larger fish that premium markets demand while preserving younger fish. They are shown how to begin preparing their catches immediately, by removing the heads and guts and using the coolers to preserve them.

On shore, others from the community fillet and freeze the fish, which are then sold to upscale Nairobi restaurants including Talisman and Seven Seafood & Grill, or to luxury lodges upcountry. Fishermen earn daily payments when they land the catch, and profits from the sales are later fed back into community projects including education or health via the conservancies.

Omar Hassan, 56, a fisherman from Faza village on Pate Island, said he was earning 50 per cent more income as part of OceanWORKS than he was before: 200 shillings per kilo compared to 130 shillings.

"This place is still blessed with fish but the problem was finding a market," he says. "You could come with a lot of fish but it would begin rotting if you did not sell it immediately. Now we have coolers, and ice, and customers. Already we are getting good money, and I know it will even get better."

The Nature Conservancy and NRT are working closely with the Lamu County Department of Fisheries, Livestock, and Cooperatives, and the central government in Nairobi.

"We are overstretched in terms of being able to monitor all of our 32 fish landing sites around Lamu, and we really appreciate the community conservancy rangers' help to be extra 'eyes and ears'," says Kamalu Sharif, the Lamu County Director of Fisheries, Livestock, and Cooperatives.

"At the same time, we know that we can't expect people to conserve the environment unless there is an economic value to doing so, and OceanWORKS does that. Fishermen are beginning to see that this is the better way to go, and we hope it will expand to cover many more fishermen soon."