Our corals, our fish, our livelihood: How tiny coastal village mitigated nature's wrath

Fishermen walk along the Kuruwitu Beach

Fishermen walk along the Kuruwitu Beach in Vipingo. The local fishermen are working together with Oceans Alive to conserve the marine life from the effects of Global Warming.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

Had the locals in Kuruwitu village, Kilifi county refused to take heed of experts’ advice back in 2005 over the conservation of part of the ocean area they fished, their source of livelihood; fishing, would today be nothing but a tale of sadness and a reminiscing of the good old times.

However, by cutting off 30 hectares from the vast 120 square kilometres ocean area that is now managed by the Kuruwitu Conservancy and Welfare Community Based Organisation (KCW CBO), the fishermen’s catch has more than tripled, effectively safeguarding their livelihood.

This is how they did it.

It all began in mid-2005 when Desmond Bowden, a co-founder of KCW CBO and the founder of Oceans Alive, together with local fishermen, including Dickson Juma, a co-founder of the Kuruwitu Conservancy, sat and discussed the sharp decline of their fish catches.

They agreed that the degenerating condition of the ocean’s coral reefs, air quality and sea grass had negatively impacted their source of livelihood with Kuruwitu being a subsistence fishing village that sold off its extra fish for its residents’ survival.

By then, the fishermen noted that the El-nino rains of 1998 had caused a major sea level rise and that this phenomenon was followed by reduced fish yields. This phenomenon was explained by a team of scientists in a report titled Coral Reef Degradation in the Indian Ocean: Status Report in 2000.

The report indicated the heavy rains affected the ocean’s ecosystem by not only increasing the water’s temperatures which cut off key supply of oxygen but also led to the bleaching and destruction of corals in the sea.

Increased pollution and emission of gases in the air have caused global warming which has also caused rising sea water temperatures which though gradual, have serious ramifications including reducing oxygen levels and killing of sea plants.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, corals feed at least 25 per cent of all marine life, including fish, as such, with the death of coral reefs came the death of fish which also affected the lives of the large sea animals that feed on fish.

Also, overfishing, arising from the steep rise in population at the once calm coastal village and increased commercialisation saw huge trawlers visit the area carrying with them crucial plants and animals that would regenerate the ocean’s ecosystem.

“The huge trawlers carried everything including sea grass, corals and even young fish that had no chance to mature to supply the ocean with future generations of fish. Locals also used very substandard fishing items including mosquito nets which captured everything, including freshly hatched eggs. Things were terrible,” Mr Bowden said.

Figures at the landing sites where the fishermen weighed their catches became scary with several noticing their catches had reduced almost five-fold.

“I was stunned when for an entire week, I got as little as only two kg of fish when I used to get as much as 1o or even 12 per night. We knew something had to be done,” Mr Juma said.

Swiftly, the locals agreed to form a co-management area that would be run by the community, the State and partners including on-governmental organisations involved in Ocean biodiversity. Just like that, the KWC CBO was created and became a beach management unit manned by the locals and the goal was clear. The coral reefs, the backbone of ocean life, had to be restored and that is how the 30 hectares was cut out for conservation and restoration of corals in Kuruwitu. That area is called “ Tengefu”  a Swahili word meaning “to be set apart”.

Restoring the corals effectively meant growing the corals either offshore by planting them on coral beds then later introducing them in the ocean or inshore by planting them directly on the surface of mother corals. Interestingly, many assume corals are rocks but nay, they are a class of colonial animal related to hydroids, jellyfish, and sea anemones.

The common coral is the stony coral which is made up of hundreds of thousands of living polyps that contain microscopic algae called zooxanthellae, which exist with the animal in a symbiotic relationship.

It is these animals, the coral polyps, that provide the algae, the plants, with a home even as the algae provide the polyps with food they generate through photosynthesis. It is the growth of polyps and expansion of the hard skeletal structures beneath them that build up the permanent coral reef structure over time.

To effectively plant the corals, a team of willing locals, mostly fishermen, who saw the importance of the coral restoration plan joined the organisation and they agreed that for six months, beginning June 2005, they would replant the corals on the ocean’s bedrock made up of old coral reefs and observe changes in the number of fish, if any.

This move didn’t sail through without opposition from several fishermen the establishment of a Tengefu would mean less fishing area for them. This had been their struggle with the Kenya Wildlife Service and environmental agencies who always blamed the fishermen for overfishing and would chase the fishermen from the ocean.

For six months everyone waited, and grudgingly, they noticed a direct correlation between the fish population and the quality of coral reef in their area.

“The amount of fish was so overwhelming that we wondered if this was the same place where there was almost no fish in the past,” Katana Ngala, a fisherman and former Vice chairperson of the KWC CBO said.

The 30 hectares with the improved coral and sea grass was so impressive that hundreds of fish species filled the area in thousands. It was then that it was agreed that the Tengefu was very important and all agreed that the area should be sealed off permanently beginning January 2006. To date, the 30 hectares is a hub of tourism, research and locals’ place to feel the warm gentle breeze from the ocean.

To sustain this area, the process of coral restoration is continuous and the youth, referred to as the new-generation fishermen, are engaged in the process. This is the case for Mwalewa Nyale, 30, and Saidi Ali , 27, who work at the Oceans Alive headquarters in Kuruwitu. They, together with Mr Ngala, have grown over 5,000 corals on artificially made coral beds and planted them on mother corals in the ocean’s bedrock at Kuruwitu in the last one year.

“We look for viable mother corals in the sea then pick several tiny pieces of corals which we then fix with plugs and put them on the artificial coral beds here on land. Each bed has at 240 such corals and once we fill a bed, we take it in the ocean and let it stay there until the corals are mature enough to be fixed on a coral bedrock,” Mr Mwalewa said.

This he said during a short pause while he, alongside Ali and the Nation reporter were snorkeling in the ocean observing the artificial coral beds underwater. True to the fishermen’s accounts, hundreds of fish, though aware that they cannot be plucked out of the water by humans in that specific area, swam right next to the three humans and gleefully swung their fins. One could easily identify the tiger fish, puff fish, parrot and the beautiful Kuruwitu fish whose arched majestic fin cannot be missed.

“The air quality here is really good. We do not have that pungent smell so common in many beaches along Kenya’s coastline. Coral reefs are great carbon sinkers and absorb as much carbon dioxide and other bad gases in the air,” Mr Ali explained.

So successful has the conservation of the area been that the fishermen, who fish next to the protected area catch so many fish that spill over from Tengefu that they even sell part of their catch to neighbouring counties who despite having long beaches, cannot compete with Kuruwitu’s sheer quantity of fish.

Since the start of the coral restoration, the area has witnessed at least 400 percent increase in fish biomass, some 30 percent of coral restored and at least 17 percent of sea grass recovered.

“What we are doing here is balance between nature and livelihoods while mitigating the effects of climate change which affects natural nature which resultantly affects the livelihood of people and their lives,” Ledama Masidza, the Environment Programmes Officer at Ocean Alive said.

Puala Kahumbu, the executive director of Wildlife Direct who is passionate about nature and animal’s conservation believes it is only through the conservation efforts done by the KWC CBO and Ocean Alive that has made Kuruwitu the tourist hub and a place of plenty fish today.

“Protection and conservation efforts should not stop at animals and forests alone but the ocean too! Protect our ocean and many animals, including fish that we love will survive. We cannot thrive as humans when the ecosystem is unhealthy,” she said at a short break at the Bahari Hai resort in Kuruwitu where she was teaching some people the importance of filming works of conservation to create impact.

Whereas their efforts are bearing fruit and have even won global awards including the Equator Prize for excellency and sustainable management of marine resources in 2017 and the Blue Champions Award awarded by the UN in 2021, both Kuruwitu Conservancy and Ocean Alive remain underfunded. Often they rely on well-wishers’ donations, grants from organisations including the European Union and fees paid for offering tour and lesson services to tourists to run their activities.

Locals also clean the beach and collect all plastic bottles which they recycle and sell. The first sale of the plastic waste that brought Sh5,000 happened a few weeks ago. Oceans Alive headquarters also acts as a training centre where residents are taught how to conserve, reuse and recycle their inorganic waste as well as how to practice permaculture. Several home sin Kuruwitu have small kitchen gardens where locals plant their own tomatoes, onions and vegetables with most of them using waste bags carrying cement to plant their food.

“We want to create a sustainable earth that replenishes itself. We advocate for sustainability and all components; earth, ocean, land and air are needed to succeed. Give nature your best and it will give you back the same, mistreat and its wrath is unfathomable,” Mr Ledama concluded.