Restoring Hope for Fishers and Nature on Kenya's North Coast

The rich waters of the Indian Ocean off the northern coast of Kenya have been the backbone of the region’s economy for centuries. In Lamu and Tana River counties, the coral reefs, mangroves, swamps, and indigenous forests are not only globally important areas for nature, but provide food security and a source of income to local communities.

Overfishing, rising populations, and the use of illegal and destructive fishing gear are putting increasing pressure on Lamu’s delicate marine ecosystem. Small-scale fishers land approximately 90 percent of the region’s total fish catch, using 12 different types of fishing gear.

The Nature Conservancy is working closely with partner Northern Rangelands Trust, and their network of locally established community conservancies, Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Service, and national and local fisheries agencies, with support from principal funders USAID, DANIDA, and Flora and Fauna International, to improve fisheries, forests, and wildlife management for the benefit of fishing communities and marine habitats.

Collaboratively, we are working to protect the delicate marine ecosystem by supporting the establishment of a sustainable seafood enterprise called “OceanWORKS,” establishing stock status for key fisheries, strengthening fisheries co-management, and creating the enabling conditions for this to happen through private agreements with industry and fishing communities.

These initiatives can help communities both benefit more from their natural resources and protect those resources for the long-term.

According to a 2016 survey by Kenya’s State Department of Fisheries, there are 13,400 small-scale fishers operating along Kenya’s Coast. Here, fishermen deliver their catch to a fish buying boat that will then be transported to Mokowe Jetty and then by road to the fish market in Mombasa.

Omar Ali Said sells marbled parrotfish and blue-barred parrotfish at his stand at the Faza fish market on Pate Island. Small-scale artisanal coastal fisheries can provide more than 90 percent of protein and 80 percent of income to coastal households.

Fishermen are using beach seine nets off the coast of Kenya, where they have been outlawed since 2001. Seine nets with small mesh work by hanging vertically in the water and dragging across the reef lagoon from the beach or offshore from two boats.  This can crush and dislodge coral and capture a high number of juvenile fish and other sea creatures. Many fishermen continue using this type of gear because they provide food security, income, and employment, though at the expense of environmental sustainability.

The Nature Conservancy is working closely with our partner Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) to address issues of unsustainable fishing and ensure that the fisheries in this part of Kenya are managed in a way that results in viable local fisheries, stable supplies of seafood, and ecosystem conservation. There are seven community conservancies in the NRT-Coast region, including Pate Marine Community Conservancy (PMCC) and Kiunga Community Conservancy in the Lamu region. PMCC and NRT staffers Nadhir Hashim and Hassan Yusuf Hassan, respectively, take a break at the PMCC office in Faza Village on Pate Island.

Twenty fishermen in the Pate Marine Community Conservancy are participating in a pilot for the OceanWORKS program. The program trains participants on fish handling and preservation and provides them with cooler boxes so that they can keep their catch fresh for onward processing or transportation to high-end supply chains. With coolers and ice, these men can fish overnight in much deeper waters using legal fishing gear, which reduces pressure on the near-shore fisheries and allows them to catch larger and more in-demand fish that fetch a higher price. Here, Mohamed Bwanaheri Kassim returns to Faza Village on Pate Island after a night of fishing in the high seas.

Mohamed Bwanaheri Kassim, an OceanWORKS participant, shows off his catch of sweetlips and snapper after a night of fishing in deep Indian Ocean waters.

“Fishing is my only source of income,” Mohamed said. “I have raised my family of four kids through fishing. Now that I have ice and cooler boxes from the conservancy, I can fish in deeper waters, where I can get bigger fish. I am now getting up to $2 USD per kilogram compared with the $1.25 we usually get.”

Another aspect of the OceanWORKS program is providing fishermen with access to markets in places like Mombassa, Nairobi and beyond. Participants can bring their catch here, the Mandala Bay Hotel kitchen, to fillet and vacuum-seal it for freshness. Once the freezer fills up, the fillets are packed up and flown to their urban destinations. Filleted fish products earn a higher price, and the additional income could be reinvested into the community to support development and conservation projects.

TNC Kenya Program Director Munira Bashir and Marine Project Coordinator George Maina display a vacuum-sealed snapper fillet at the Mandala Bay Hotel. With pelagic fish production accounting for only 27 percent of the catch in the region, scaling up the OceanWORKS program could make a big difference in reducing fishing pressure on reef fish stocks. 

Pate Marine Community Conservancy employs a group of community wildlife rangers to protect and secure wildlife, fisheries, and the local environment. TNC, NRT, and key government agencies have equipped and trained these rangers on marine Conservancy management and monitoring, helped set up locally managed marine areas (LMMAs), and improved the recording of wildlife sightings. Here, Athman Mbwana records the details of a green turtle killed through poaching whose shell he found on patrol on Pate Island.

Sixty-seven percent of Kenya’s mangroves are found in Lamu County. Mangroves provide important habitat for marine species and breeding fish, and they also provide a natural buffer to prevent erosion and protect the land during storms. The community rangers often patrol these areas of mangroves looking for illegal logging. 

As East Africa continues to grow, Kenya’s coastal ecosystem will face increasing threats from development. Building the capacity of local people to understand and benefit from their natural resources will be vital to their long-term sustainability. 

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