Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Coral Reefs for our Kids

Thinking back I don't know that I've ever written a post about my PhD. Or maybe ever mentioned my PhD. For those who don't know I'm doing a PhD. I started 18 months ago, so about 18 months into my time here in Kenya. Since I started I have spent more and more time on that research and less on A Rocha responsibilities. At the moment I am doing almost pure research, as my very able and wonderful colleague Peter takes over from me. This means that I spend most of my waking hours on my research question and so now I will inflict it on you. 
I want to understand how coral reefs interact with thermal stress and climate change and its infamous result, mass coral bleaching. Reefs around the world really have collapsed in the face of increasingly thermal stress in our shallow coastal waters, becoming unrecognisable rubble fields, where once stood vibrant, complex ecosystems. Of all the world's habitats coral reefs are possibly the most impacted system currently from climate change and one of the most threatened with future predictions of  ocean warming and acidification. 
What has been most confusing is that seemingly well protected coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef or the Chagos Archipelago and even our small marine park here in Watamu, lost the majority of their coral during mass-bleaching events in the past 20 years. Some of these reefs have bounced back, but others haven't and there doesn't seem to be a straight forward answer why this is. 
I won't bore you with the details, but this is what I am studying. What makes reefs resilient, why do they persist or fail, what ecological processes control this? Most elusively and most interestingly I also hope to push forward our knowledge and the question on many coral reef scientist's lips, which reefs will survive for our kids to see? 
The past two weeks I have been down in Kisite on the south coast, near Tanzania, diving twice a day in various fringing reefs and micro-atolls in that area looking at the variation in reef condition. I am looking for signs of health and recovery from previous bleaching events and comparing this with data from Watamu, Sumatra and in the coming year hopefully Mozambique and the Maldives as well. The protected reefs in Kisite are in a really good condition, with abundant and diverse coral and fish communities. I am really starting to see patterns in reef condition as well, such as the most sensitive butterflyfish, which will disappear quickly with decreasing environmental condition. The Bennett's butteflyfish seems to be the fussiest about living in high coral cover with almost no fishing pressure. If you see this guy on your reef, its probably a happy sign :-). 
Healthy reef at Mako Kokwe 

Bennett's Butterflyfish

Fusilier swimming over a huge table coral

Nothing to do with reef resilience, but check out this crazy oyster we found!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Fishermen need live reefs too!

Part 1: The idea
On Thursday last week I was attending a Kenya Wildlife Service meeting in Mombasa, which was focussing on how managers within KWS will be more involved with the monitoring of their marine parks, which up until now has largely been conducted by another team of scientists from KWS headquarters in Mombasa. The day was spent discussing the aims, objects and operatives of how this new initiative would work, all of which was quite exciting and seems like it will take big steps in the right direction for the management of Kenya's marine parks. 
At one point a fisheries expert pointed out that one metric that should be included was fishermen support for the park. Marine parks around the world have succeeded because of the tourism money they bring in and because of the improved fisheries in areas adjacent to the park, through spill-over of fish populations into surrounding areas. In Kenya the focus has been on the income from tourists and fisheries benefit has been largely ignored. As such, the meeting leader kind of dismissed the idea as too ambitious for the scope of the current programme, which at first I agreed with. 
On Saturday I was up in Kilifi, hanging out for a chilled out weekend away from work and things. I rode a motorbike down to the main beach there and swam out to the reef. I was expecting to find it in a bad shape because it is outside the national park system, but it was literally dead. There was almost no living coral and all the fish were small planktivores no bigger than 2 or 3cm long. It was just a slope of rubble covered in seaweed. I was reminded again to be so grateful for the marine parks we do have in Kenya, which despite their challenges are doing some good things. 

Part 2: The paradigm shift
Later that Saturday I was sitting in a little dugout canoe in the creek with my social scientist friend Zach. We were using handlines to try and catch whatever was around, as do a lot of the poorest fishermen in this area. Zach and I were talking about his work with wood resources and the people involved with this in Arabuko-Sokoke forest and at a point he made the shocking statement that, "If Arabuko was de-gazetted tomorrow, I wouldn't be unhappy". He went on to explain that from his point of view we have an imperative for justice and the current system of forest management of 'fences and fines' is an injustice. He is passionate about the plight of the people he works with, and people I know as well, but just have never talked to in great detail about their livelihoods and their struggles. 
In the end we did conclude that de-gazetting any natural resources in Kenya wouldn't actually bring long-term happiness to communities, because eventually the area would be exhausted, and most likely by already wealthy business people, who would have more power and motivation to finish the forest for short-term gain. However the point remained that in Zach's eyes the human element really came first. 
I have always acknowledged the importance of community participation in resource conservation, like with marine parks, but in my mind it has always come as a secondary objective. Perhaps because my focus is on the fish, they become my first priority, and as such it doesn't bother me for the moment if fishermen are not receiving benefits from the marine park. It is an eventual goal, but for now at least the fish are semi-ok. However, sitting out there in that little hand carved boat, with nothing but a line and hook and still no fish, it really hit hard the injustice that this would be if it were your livelihood. 
Talking to local fishermen there in Kilifi they mentioned about how many of the fish were being taken by ring-netters from Pemba (see previous blog called Sunday) and even by a company based in Mombasa for the aquarium trade. I also asked the guys if they knew what marine parks were, and what was their point. They said yes they had heard about them, but no they didn't know why they exist. Sheer human population is having its toll on natural resources in open areas in Kenya, but the injustice of those more powerful from the outside taking what little they have, and the fact this makes it impossible to manage their resource even if they knew how, is really abhorrent. 

Part 3: The conclusion
So I may be becoming a 'fishermen-first' person. In a way I've always known about these issues and even had some first hand experience. Perhaps before I didn't have enough experience to fully understand, or perhaps I did understand and then forgot as I became bogged down in other stuff. It may seem like a small shift from the outside, but in my context it really feels like a complex one, with important consequences. The main one is that I will hopefully never look at poacher in the park, with his little canoe and hand-line and feel frustrated at him. Rather I will feel motivated to conserve the reef for his sake and make efforts to shift the rotten system which keeps him in his desperate circumstances.
Dead reef overgrown with algae

A day's catch on an unprotected reef