What you need to know:
- Seagrasses are a type of grass that grow in saline ocean waters. They play a key role in sustaining the ocean's biodiversity by providing food, shelter and nurseries for several organisms.
- They also form important shallow marine carbon sinks, capturing five to10 times more carbon, just like mangrove forests, but they do more than what terrestrial grass does.
- They help in reducing strong waves or hurricanes that could cause flooding.
Mohammed Kassim is a man on a mission. He starts his day by the shores of the Indian Ocean, where he finds satisfaction in reconciling nature. His office sits on Wasini Island located at Kenya's South Coast and he is part of the Beach Management Unit (BMU) as secretary of their organisation.
A BMU is a community-based fishing organisation established to ensure effective and sustainable utilisation and management of the fisheries. Its membership is made up of people who directly or indirectly depend on the oceans, including fishermen, boat operators and fishmongers.
Kenya’s Coast has about 73 registered BMUs, whose responsibility is to curb activities that threaten natural resources such as overfishing and encroachment. They also provide security to their designated area. Kassim’s Unit is different. In their unit, they have set up a protected area known as Community Conservation Area, where they practise sustainable fishing. They also restore degraded coral reefs and seagrasses.
Seagrasses are a type of grass that grow in saline ocean waters. They play a key role in sustaining the ocean's biodiversity by providing food, shelter and nurseries for several organisms. They also form important shallow marine carbon sinks, capturing five to10 times more carbon, just like mangrove forests, but they do more than what terrestrial grass does. They help in reducing strong waves or hurricanes that could cause flooding; a risky impending disaster especially for the 3,000 community members living on the island.
When Healthy Nation visits, Kassim is joined by five other members, who are busy sewing hessian bags together using sisal for the third day. Just two days ago, Kassim had been in the water to identify where “nyasi za baharini”, Kiswahili for seagrass, had been degraded. He spots a donor site full of healthy seagrass, uproots some of them for transplanting at the degraded area.
Kassim and his group use biodegradable hessian bags made according to the size of the areas where seagrass has been degraded. They place the bags underwater and then hammer each corner into the soil to keep it from being carried away by the currents.
"I have to check on the progress of the grass every two weeks. Sometimes once we have planted them, they get attacked by sea urchins and only a few survive," says Kassim as he coordinates the activities with the other members.
Globally, just like coral reefs, seagrass is disappearing due to climate change, development and human activities. For Kassim’s fishing community, seagrass is important as they solely depend on the sale of fish and tourism activities for their livelihood.
Wasini Island is adjacent to Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park and Reserve, an area where locals use the ocean as a resource for employment including as marine tour guides or boat operators for local and international tourists engaging in diving, snorkelling, dolphin and whale watching activities.
The process of planting new seagrass involves the group’s diving gear, a whiteboard and a pencil.
"We are always planting between 8am and 10am because the tides are low and we can access the seagrass with ease without being deep underwater," he says. It also makes it easy to control the waves.
Kassim is accompanied by three people, whose roles include carrying trays of seagrasses and controlling and anchoring the boat until the exercise is over. The process takes between 30 minutes and an hour depending on the size of the area. This initiative began in 2014 after the BMU underwent training by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute (KMFRI), a government-funded research organisation that conducts research on the marine environment. Before the training, Kassim had observed reduced fish stock, but he did not understand where the danger came from.
“Our fish stock had reduced and a fisherman would go into the sea and come out with at least two kilos of fish. This is not enough even to feed his family. We got worried because this was our main resource and here it was declining,” he says.
When researchers approached them with the idea to restore seagrasses, they were excited and could not wait to see the results. Unfortunately, the research period ended, but it opened up possibilities of getting interested institutions to support the rehabilitation of seagrasses on Wasini Island.
“The period included taking time to monitor not only the seagrasses but also the fish. We realised more fish were coming to get food where the grass grew,” he explains.
KMFRI Marine Ecologist Lilian Daudi says this is expected considering the role that seagrass plays in the marine ecosystem. The replanted seagrass is called Thalassia Hempinchii, also known as Pacific turtlegrass, but due to colonisation, the replanted area ended up with different species. “All these species are indigenous, so there is no harm. In fact, it is a good sign that new life is being supported,” she says.
She notes that through monitoring, 70 per cent of the seagrass has since survived, with the remaining affected by factors such as heavy currents leading to sedimentation and feeding by sea urchins.
Lilian, who has specialised in research on sea grasses, says the rehabilitation process would be more effective if it were mechanised — use machines to replant the seagrasses, which is much faster and covers a larger area)
In 2020, the Coast Development Authority (CDA), an institution that plans, coordinates and implements development projects in the coastal region, approached Wasini residents with the intention of supporting them in seagrass restoration. CDA, which promotes sustainable economic exploitation of coastal and marine resources in Kenya, would also support the same community in the rehabilitation of degraded coral reefs.
This was under the Kenya Climate Change and Adaptation Project , an initiative funded by the United Nation through Adaptation Fund.
Through sensitisations and training, locals have been getting knowledge on seagrass conservations.
Musny Ahmed, the project coordinator at CDA, said it cost Sh5 million (about 50,000 USD) while another Sh10 million (100,000USD) was given out by the same donor for coral reef restoration.
“We began the seagrass rehabilitation in 2020 after a baseline survey showed there were degraded areas,” she says. So far at least 10,000 seagrass seedlings have been planted in a 2.5-acre piece of land. According to Musny, there has been 70 per cent success in the project. Despite the progress, there are still challenges. For instance, Kenya has 317 square kilometres of seagrass according to research published in 2018. It lost 21 per cent between 1986 and 2016. Musny proposes that to effectively work on the prevention of hurricanes or floods, a larger part of the sea would need to be rehabilitated and restored.
Even so, the Wasini community’s effort to conserve the environment is under threat with the government’s announcement that the multibillion Shimoni Fishing Port adjacent to Wasini Island will be constructed. At the moment, a perimeter fence is already being set up to mean that the work will soon begin. Kassim says not even financial compensation will pay back their years’ worth of effort to conserve sea grasses and coral reefs.
Lilian explains that the construction will lead to destruction of sea grasses due to the disturbance in the water.
“Dredging activities and increased industrialisation are among the biggest threats to marine ecosystems especially in this conservation area,” she says. An environmental Impact Assessment Report by the National Environment Management Authority showed that conservation activities are among those that will be affected if the port is built.
Lilian says the only solution for the country is to set up a marine spatial plan to avoid such misfortunes. The plan will identify places where aquaculture, fishing and port development can be practised. It can also guide the setting aside areas exclusively for conservation.
“A marine spatial plan is going to help the community and scientists to undertake their activities to avoid further destruction.”
For Kassim, he hopes they will be compensated because of the efforts and the resources that they have put in over the years.