The Marine Protected Areas of Kenya- Part II

Kenya has the oldest managed Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Africa! Throughout Kenya, there are four Marine National Parks, Malindi, Watamu, Mombasa, and Kisite, in a total area of 55 km2, and six Marine National Reserves, Kiunga, Malindi, Watamu, Mombasa, Diani-Chale, and Mpunguti, totaling an area of 735 km². Marine National Parks are adjacent to or encompassed within Marine Reserves, for example the Watamu-Malindi Marine National Park and Reserve, the first MPA to be established in Kenya. Even though the Diani–Chale Marine National Reserve is the most recent reserve, gazetted in 1994, there is no official active management. Having dived in the most pristine reefs and the most degraded reefs in Diani, I have found myself often dreaming of the day Diani-Chale Marine National Reserve would be actively managed!

Watamu-Malindi Marine National Park and Reserve, image by UNESCO
Malindi-Watamu Biosphere reserve-©Olivier Hamerlynck

Let’s take a closer look at some of these parks and reserves!

Watamu-Malindi Marine National Park and Reserve (WMMNPR)

The oldest MPA in Africa is Watamu Marine National Park (WMNP) established in 1968. The park exists within the larger Watamu-Malindi Marine National Reserve. It is one of two no-take zones nested within the larger Watamu-Malindi Marine National Reserve, which is 245km². This is probably a very small MPA compared to some of the world’s largest protected MPAs. Now if you recall Part 1 of this article where I rave about Vivienne Evans’ article on coral restoration, she quotes, “most restoration projects are technically compared to the size of a backyard.” For MPAs, there is room for protecting much bigger areas. For instance, large scale MPAs can cover an area of 150,000 km2 of the ocean. If coral reefs are to be saved in a global scale, establishing larger and effective MPAs seems a more advanced way to safeguard both the reefs and their inhabitants.

MPAs are some of the last places where marine species can escape to. They also support healthy fisheries and increase the ability of coral reefs to resist bleaching. This is why most MPAs have got a healthy population of fish making it a much more enjoyable diving or snorkeling experience. Also, a reef with a healthy population of fish, especially herbivorous fish, will increase recruitment of coral compared to a degraded reef with less herbivorous fish that will be dominated by algae. Extraction of all resources, including fishing, is prohibited within the park, but within the reserve, traditional and sustainable fishing and extraction activities such as sustainable removal of shells are permitted. This benefits both the marine life populations, and the local fishing communities.

Watamu-Malindi Marine National Park and Reserve, image by Natural World Kenya Safaris

The park consists of 10km² of shallow lagoon containing coral, seagrass and sand. The WMMNPR also encompasses the Mida creek mangrove forest. This mangrove forest hosts the widest range of mangrove species on the entire East African coast. It is rich in fish, crabs, prawns, and oysters, which also support local fishing communities.

Historically, WMMNPR has been an international tourism centre. Tourism, although economically important, also has a negative side. Corals and shells have been exploited heavily by visitors and local tradesmen as souvenirs for many years. Both trampling and anchorage have also caused disturbances on the reef.  However, there are many local conservation organisations in the area working hard to protect the marine life, this includes our partners at Local Ocean Conservation.

Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park and Reserve (KMMNPR)

I myself have had the opportunity to dive in only one of the MPAs in Kenya, which is the Kisite Marine National Park. This particular MPA is located off the south coast of Kenya. It is considered to be the most magnificent of the Kenyan MPAs and I couldn’t agree more! It was established in 1973. Following local disputes over the loss of fishing grounds caused by the establishment of the strict Marine National Park, Mpunguti was gazetted as a Marine National Reserve five years later. The KMPNPR includes three coral ragged islands partially covered by dense equatorial rain forest or low grasses, as well as submerged reefs, and they sit adjacent to a mangrove forest on the mainland.  The reef is very healthy, with more than 250 species described within the park so far.

Several reef restoration projects have been established in the islands which have shown an increase in fish populations three times as much as compared to other areas, but even so, the park still stands exuberant and full of life compared to the areas with restoration projects. In protection of reefs, it is much easier to plant corals instead of creating MPAs or managing fisheries, which takes years to see any real progress, but the end result of a MPA will far outmatch restoration!

Kiunga Marine National Reserve

Further north, in the famous cultural county of Lamu, you can find the Kiunga Marine National Reserve which incorporates a chain of about 50 offshore islands and coral reefs in the Lamu Archipelago, running for some 60 km parallel to the coastline. The protected status of the reserve ensures the conservation of many critical ecosystems both on land and in the water.

The marine reserve includes an indented coastline and dozens of islands with splendid coral reefs, seagrass beds, sandy beaches and dunes, and rich mangroves. It’s a feeding ground of at least five species of sea turtles, three of which nest in the reserve. Other than tourism, the major economic activity in the region is artisanal fishing. Kiunga is the main fishing village near the Somali border and the region is known to harbor the best fishermen on the coast. Among the challenges faced by the artisanal fishermen is the decrease in catch over the years due to overfishing.

Coral reef fisheries in Kenya, image by CORDIO East Africa

The livelihoods of thousands of coastal communities are dependent on the fisheries resources. The region receives a lot of funds for various projects, from turtle conservation, to fisheries in order to protect the uniqueness of the coastal habitat and its resources for future generations. However, if it were to protect its reefs with a marine park rather than just a reserve, it is much more likely to result in productive fishing grounds and greater tourism.

If only MPAs could receive as much publicity as restoration projects are currently and if only governments could work closely with communities in establishing more effective MPAs!


Cowburn, B., Musembi, P. M., Sindorf, V., Kohlmeier, D., Raker, C., Nussbaumer, A., … & Horions, M. (2018). The Habitats and Biodiversity of Watamu Marine National Park: Evaluating Our Knowledge of One of East Africa’s Oldest Marine Protected Areas. Atoll Research Bulletin, (618).

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