Coral reef socio-ecological systems in a changing environment: voices from Kenyan small-scale fishers

by Mouna Chambon

Coral reefs are famous for hosting rich marine life and providing major services to coastal communities around the world. Yet, those fragile ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human pressures such as overfishing, pollution and climate change. This is especially true in the western Indian Ocean, which has experienced massive coral bleaching events over the last three decades due to global warming. For 7 months, LICCI members have investigated the activities of small-scale fishing communities on the southern coast of Kenya. They told us about the changes they see in their marine environment and how they respond to it. Here is their story.

Octopuses and fish are dying here; it is because the ocean is too hot”, says Matogo Mchambi Dosa, with a stick in hand and a shell bucket on her back. She is walking along the reef of Wasini Island, southern Kenya, to spot octopuses. When she was young, she used to stalk fishermen for days, trying to learn how they were hunting octopuses. Since then, she has become an outstanding octopus hunter. She is now the one teaching this technique to her community, passing down the knowledge of what used to be a male affair, to ladies. But nowadays, conditions are getting tough for footfishers. She explains: « Since I have started fishing, I have seen a lot of changes in the climate. Sea temperatures have considerably increased, and that is why most of the octopus’ dens here are empty. The octopuses prefer to migrate from the shore to deeper and cooler waters in the open ocean”. No octopus means no money for Matogo. On Wasini Island, as in other regions of the world, small-scale fishers rely heavily on coral reefs for their livelihoods, nutritional needs and well-being.

As shown by Matogo’s story, small-scale fishing activities are highly gendered. On the south coast of Kenya, the reef acts as a strong marker of gendered spatial division. While men are using the whole seascape to harvest resources of fisheries, using foot, canoe or motorboat, fisherwomen are restricted to the inner reef area. For both cultural and economic reasons, they do not have the opportunity to fish from a boat, thus limiting their activities to the coastline. Since women and men tend to fish in different parts of the reef, they usually target distinct species and hold complementary knowledge of marine resources. On one hand, women possess very specific knowledge about the tides, the lunar cycle and the ecology of shell species and octopus in the nearshore waters. On the other hand, men who can fish beyond the reef and access the open ocean, have deep knowledge about the currents, the winds and pelagic and demersal fish species. Those gender patterns are not specific to Kenya but echo to many other coral reef-dependent communities around the world, where gender influences the access, use and knowledge related to tropical seascapes.

Picture 1: Matogo Mchambi Dosa, octopus hunter from Mkwiro community in Wasini Island. She is looking for octopuses at low tide to gather food for her family.

Through their intimate experience of the sea, local fishing communities are aware of changes happening in the reef. For many of them, “the weather is changing”: there is more heat, less regular rainfalls and conflicting winds. Local communities are especially worried about fluctuations in seasonality. Their fishing activities are strongly influenced by the alternating monsoon seasons, Kusi and Kaskazi. During the cool season of Kusi (April-October), there is a lot of wind and the sea is particularly rough, so very few fishers go out to sea. On the contrary, the dry and calm season of Kaskazi (November-March) corresponds to a period of high catch. Over the years, the transition between seasons has become less clear:“we are experiencing more and more mixed weather: the conditions of Kusi are seen during Kaskazi, so it is very confusing”. Besides changes in climate, local fishers have also witnessed rising water temperatures and shifting tidal patterns: “tides might come earlier or later than expected” (footfisher from Wasini Island).

Picture 2: Mwaka, a footfisher from Wasini Island, is struggling to find shells and octopuses because of changes in the timing of the spring tide period (“bamvua” in local language): “Bamvuas are less predictable than before. Tides might come earlier or later than expected”. She ends up spending less time fishing and more time looking for alternative sources of income, such as selling firewood.

In turn, those changes in the ocean are affecting marine life with major changes observed in the behavior, distribution and mortality of marine plants and animals. As an example, fishermen widely complain about the decline in brittle stars. Those starfish-like species, which are used locally as a bait to catch fish with basket traps, are increasingly hard to find nowadays. Local people attribute these environmental changes to both changing weather conditions and human activities, especially overfishing. As a result, fishers consider that they are making less money than in the past, which impacts the community at large:Because of the increase in water temperature, there is less fish available (…) It affects the whole economy here, because most of the businesses depend on the sea”(fish processor, Kibuyuni village).

Picture 3: Brittle stars are used as bait by basket-trap fishers. Recently, fishermen have noticed a reduction in the availability of brittle stars, so they have started to shift to other types of bait such as squids.

To address those changing conditions in the reef, local people have decided to take action. Over the last decade, they have organized themselves as local community groups to efficiently manage their marine resources and ensure sustainable alternative livelihoods. Those groups are called “Beach Management Units’ – or BMU in short. The membership is open to anyone who depends on the sea for living, both women and men. Through the BMUs, and with the support of donors, NGOs and researchers, local people have been able to navigate through environmental changes and implement suitable solutions. On Wasini Island for instance, the BMUs have created two local marine protected areas (MPA) that are directly ruled by the villagers themselves. Within those local MPAs, no fishing is allowed at all. Instead, BMU members are monitoring coral health on a weekly basis. They hope that this local protection status will help to increase fish biomass and make the corals more resilient to future potential bleaching events. In addition, tourists can visit the local MPAs and contribute to sustain local incomes. Such community-based initiative contributes to reverse marine biodiversity loss and climate change impacts, while supporting local livelihoods. It shows that BMU activities are pivotal for small-scale fishing communities to cope with rising temperatures, depleting resources and increasing poverty. BMU actions also demonstrate the agency of local communities to respond to the problems they perceive and ensure the viability of their way of life and identity as people of the sea: “Even if we find less fish than before, people are still determined to try their luck. All the knowledge we have is related to the ocean, so we stick to fishing activities” (Female foot fisher, Wasini Island).

Picture 4: BMU member wearing a conservation T-shirt: “I plant the mangrove; I take care of the environment” (from Kiswahili). Through the BMU, local communities from the south coast are sensitive to the protection of their marine environment.