2020 was an eventful year and a practice dive on the 13th of November 2020 to refresh the teams SCUBA skills and underwater survey methods in preparation for a two-week scientific survey was welcome by the team itching to get in the water after 7 months locked down. The scientific surveys whose main objective was to collect ecological baseline information to assess the health status of coral reefs to inform management initiatives, started on the 16th of November and included 4 CORDIO divers; Mishal Gudka, Peter Musembi, Randall Mabwa and Swaleh Aboud and 1 KMFRI diver, Masud Zamu and covered 5 sites in Kenya’s northern coast namely Marereni, Malindi, Watamu, Kanamai – Mradi, Kuruwitu and a southern site in the Wasini – Shimoni Channel.
These sites, along with community reserves set up, and managed by community members to conserve and preserve resources key to community livelihoods were surveyed during a follow-up community engagement exercise whose objective was to assist the communities in setting up coral reef habitat monitoring programs, train members on data collection and interpretation to improve their understanding of the status of their resources, and for them to devise appropriate management actions. Following COVID guidelines strictly, the team set out for the northern sites, an adventure of sorts as we headed out north to Mambrui, at the Che Shale. This would make our base for 3 days as we surveyed proposed sites in and adjacent to the proposed Marereni Locally Marine Managed Area (LMMA), a collaborative turtle conservation initiative between the Marereni Community based organisation and the Community Based Environmental Conservation Organization (COBEC).
Our early morning drives to these new dive sites took us through salt pans filled with 100s of workers raking salt into mounds with the realisation that a section of the remaining mangrove forests once stood where these pans are; a shift from the cool, shadowy and muddy mangrove forest canals whose canopies are inhabited by primates and birds to the current state, vast evaporation salt pans with temperatures shooting to 40°c during the day! Regardless of the various states of degradation and low fish populations in Marereni and Malindi, the sightings of a Whitetip reef shark, turtles, an octopus and a squid in the Watamu Marine National Park offered a glimpse of hope that these important species are still available. The protected area surveys were equally useful in building synergies between CORDIO and the Kenya Wildlife Service with both teams collaborating to conduct surveys at sites located in parks and reserves whose sub-objective is to contribute towards the management of these protected areas.
In Marereni, we saw a couple of turtles en route to our sites, an observation that supported the community’s need to demarcate an area of ~4km2 as a locally marine managed area (LMMA) to conserve these species. However, the state of corals and fish populations in the area was not fascinating enough for our dive team diving in algal dominated reefs with patches of seagrass species; conditions that were also observed at the Malindi Marine national park and reserve this time with a high abundance of rubble.
A major factor of this survey was our reliance on local guides from the community whose expert knowledge of the protected marine areas and reserves guided us to the best points to survey with our observations noting that coral reefs in the region are very much under threat from issues such as pollution, siltation and other environmental stressors.
This is clear evidence that reefs are still damaged from the effects of the 1998 and 2016 global bleaching events. To further build the capacity of the community members at sites surveyed, follow-up community trainings were conducted at Marereni, Kuruwitu, Kanamai and Wasini to acquire views that would assist the team to draft recommendations for community involvement and improvement of management efforts through collaborative management of our coral ecosystems.
From observations, it is also evident that coral reefs are declining and the community’s connection to the reefs and other marine ecosystems requires better engagement through collaborations between community groups, scientists and governance bodies. However, all is not lost as the community members are now at the fore front of pushing for the conservation of marine ecosystems.