Tourism, livelihoods in threat as coral reefs undergo mass bleaching

An underwater image showing a whitened and bleached coral reef near Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park in Kwale County. The corals are changing colour due to extremely high temperatures, affecting marine life.


What you need to know:

  • The areas are used for research and educational tours.
  • They also play an important role of conservation of marine biodiversity and fisheries production.

Coast residents have raised concern over a possible decline of fish and tourism activities after they observed that corals in Indian Ocean are getting bleached and whitened. This is the second extreme bleaching occurrence in the area. The first one happened in 1998.

Scientists now blame the bleaching on the high temperatures that have been experienced recently especially in the Coast region.

Surveys done last week by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (Kemri) and residents in a section of Wasini Island near Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Reserve in Kwale County showed that most of the corals that are usually colourful are fading and turning white.

 “We are really worried. There is Mass coral bleaching happening here yet we depend on this ocean for fish and livelihood,” said Mohammed Kassim, Wasini Beach Management Unit secretary.

Coral reefs are key components found on the base of the ocean that provide food, breeding areas and shelter for most of the fish and other organisms in the ocean. When they bleach or die, it means they lose their vibrant colours and turn white, hence being unable to play their critical role.

The bleaching happens due to climate change, where there are increased temperatures of the sea above normal. Bleaching can also happen due to pollution or development, but residents have ruled this out since the affected area is a protected area (Community Conservation Area) where they restrict any fishing or industrial activities for conservation purposes.

Mr Kassim told Climate Action he noticed that the corals in the Community Conservation Area, a protected section of the ocean where he undertakes his conservation activities, had completely lost their colour.

Mr Kassim had gone to monitor the normally beautiful area to ensure the boundaries were in place and the recently artificially restored coral reefs were growing. “That is when I saw the mass bleaching. I found two fish that had died,” said Mr Kassim.

He said this was alarming as it meant that if the situation got worse, more fish would be unable to survive, affecting fishermen who depend on the activity as their main source of livelihood.

The community not only depends on fish but also on the corals because many tourists come here to snorkel and dive while watching the beautiful nature underwater. “If bleaching continues, we will have no fish here. There is also the possibility of the corals dying. We need help urgently,” said Mr Kassim.

He added that residents now want more organisations to come on board and educate them on how to handle coral bleaching and provide grants for restoration of the corals.

According to Kemfri Coral Reef Researcher Jelvas Mwaura, unusual seawater temperatures of about 34 degrees are being recorded in the region and are being attributed to the massive bleaching of corals in marine protected areas along the Coast of Kenya.

“This is a symptom of environmental stress. When the seawater temperatures go beyond 24 to 27 degrees, the corals are forced to lose their coloured zooxanthellae (endomicroscopic algae), turning them into white skeletons," said Dr Mwaura.

He said a recent survey revealed a devastating situation especially near the Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park.

 “It is devastating because after years of protecting the area against overfishing, pollution and development, the corals are under more threat and dying,” he told Healthy Nation.

“The massive coral bleaching and consequent high mortality on reefs has dire implications on the coastal tourism industry, as the reefs will no longer appear beautiful after coral loss,” he added.

 Dr Mwaura noted that researchers from Kemfri and the Wildlife Research and Training Institute are currently planning to do underwater surveys to get the real picture of the severity and save the corals from massive death.

According to Dr Mwaura, the surveys will help put Kenya on the global map for coral bleaching and attract funds to mitigate the impacts.

For a long time, residents in the Coast region have set aside Community Conservation Areas , where fishing and development is restricted, to boost conservation and restoration efforts.

The government has also set aside six Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) such as the marine parks, where it protects reefs from local stressors like overfishing, pollution and sedimentation. The areas are used for research and educational tours. They also play an important role of conservation of marine biodiversity and fisheries production.

However, the areas in the ocean have now been subjected to high temperatures due to global warming, causing the ocean water to become extremely warm. Scientists say the phenomenon of this magnitude was first experienced in 1997/98, causing massive loss of corals ranging from 50 to 90 per cent, especially in MPAs, as they had high coral cover.

“This is the fifth mass bleaching of corals happening or being witnessed on coral reefs worldwide. Five time catastrophic impacts in less than 10 years indicate climate change is placing corals at higher risk of decline if not extinction,” said Dr Mwaura