Coral Reefs in Kenya

What excites me the most when scuba diving is the variety of fish drawn to coral reefs! The explosion of colour and life below the waves. Even more fascinating is learning to identify fish on a healthy reef populated with hundreds of fish! Fish of all sizes, shapes, and colours, as well as different colourful corals, I bet this is what draws snorkelers and divers from different parts of the world to the coastal regions of Kenya. Kenya is home to some of the most fascinating coral reefs and Kenya’s economy benefits from both reef fisheries and reef related tourism! Most international tourists that flock to the coast to engage in snorkeling and diving come to enjoy this beautiful ecosystem; coral reefs! Not just this, but artisanal fisheries in reefs, seagrass, and associated environments, represent more than 95% of the total marine fish catch signifying an important source of protein and livelihoods for coastal communities.

Photo by the REEFolution Foundation

The Kenyan reef stretches from north to south, characterized by narrow fringing reefs in the south and patchy and discontinuous reefs in the north. The southern side of the coastal region of Kenya is one of the most favoured tourist destinations. There are 250 coral reef species found in Kenya, with Shimoni and Kisite located in the south having the highest coral diversity. These reefs are found at different depths ranging from less than 1 m at low tide to over 20 m.

Across the globe, coral reefs continue to be at risk from a multitude of stressors! In Kenya, the most severe mortality case of coral ever reported was in 1998. Kenya’s coral reefs suffered 50–80% mortality from the El Nino-related coral bleaching event that affected the entire Indian Ocean. Rising surface sea temperatures linked to global climate change has continued to trigger bleaching episodes which result in the whitening and death of coral, followed by a reduction in reef-associated marine life. Overfishing only exacerbates the problem in the region. Destructive fishing practices, the rapid expansion of coastal populations, and consequentially increased loads of domestic sewage, plastic pollution, agricultural run-off, and industrial effluents to the marine environment, all represent a significant threat to coral reefs and their inhabitants in the entire Western Indian Ocean Region (WIO).

So, what happens if coral reefs completely vanish? Scientists in the WIO region have warned a loss of many reef-associated benefits if corals are depleted. A massive decline of healthy coral reef off the Kenyan coast poses danger to the marine ecosystem and the maritime sector. There is danger in reduced tourism, loss of coastal protection, that may lead to property damage and erosion. Some experts predict hunger, poverty, and political instability as the livelihoods of many people disappear. Once the coral is dead, the reefs will also die and erode, the rocky formation that forms thereafter is unable to support important marine life. As it is, local fishermen in Kenya have been reporting a decline of catch over the years. Scientists have reported a 4-fold decline in coral reef fishery catch rates and a decline of species diversity since the mid-1980s. As a result, local fishermen have continued to suffer from high levels of poverty.

Though the Kenyan government has enacted measures to promote better fishing practices that are less harmful to the reef, it has been a challenge for such policies to be enforced and more management measures have to be put in place. Still, all is not lost as efforts from various stakeholders are still being enacted all over the region. Much coral reef conservation effort has focused on understanding and preventing coral mass-mortalities. Studies have also shown that Kenya’s marine parks are effective in protecting coral reef communities with higher hard coral cover and larger diversity of finfish. South Africa is among the countries in the WIO region that has protected its coral reefs and has urged countries in the region to do the same through expanding more marine protected areas.

Over recent years, coral reef conservation and restoration programmes have also taken root in Kenya. Kenya has become second only to the Seychelles in the WIO region to take up coral gardening to stimulate natural regeneration and recovery, and to restore habitat complexity. These projects are currently being expanded in other degraded coral reef sites across the region. Several projects that work with fisher communities in rebuilding these reefs along the coastline have been reporting an increase in fish populations within a year of the project commencement, as well as reports of spillover of species into unprotected areas, benefiting many more people. One of our partners, the REEFolution Foundation, have been working with the community of Mkwiro on coral restoration programmes and in return created opportunities to improve livelihood conditions in the small fishing village.

Ongoing coral reef restoration work in Shimoni with the REEFolution Foundation. Photo by the REEFolution Foundation.

The Marine Education Centre has developed a number of awareness materials with the Diving the Crab team at The Sands at Nomad hotel regarding responsible diving and beach experiences to reduce human impacts on marine life. They have also been working tirelessly to seek funds in order to expand our education and outreach programmes for marine life interactions with all snorkel and dive operators in Diani, and beyond!

You can adopt a bottle reef today to support REEFolution Foundation restoration work.

If you wish to support our work or that of our partners, please do not hesitate to contact us at info@ces-kenya.org

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