Kenyan coral marine biologist Nyawira Muthiga won the 2018 Award for Conservation Excellence together with her husband, American marine biologist Timothy McClanahan, in recognition of many years spent advocating community-driven marine conservation in East Africa.
Presented by the Banovich Wildlife Escapes Foundation in the US in February, the award comes with a $100,000 cash prize.
Muthiga credits her love for the ocean to a childhood spent partly in Dar es Salaam.
“My mother used to take us to the beach on Sundays. Swimming in the ocean and seeing the various creatures, shells and algae washed up on the beach fascinated me,” she said.
Currently the programme director of the Wildlife Conservation Society marine programme in Kenya, Muthiga says watching documentaries by French marine expert Jacques Cousteau further cemented her passion for ocean life.
When she is not diving into the deep sea to monitor coral reefs and fish, Muthiga helps local communities manage their fishing grounds. Small-scale fishing remains the mainstay of many coastal people. Over the years, they have suffered from declining fish stocks and revenues.
Muthiga and McClanahan use their expertise to help people while minimising damage to coral reefs. They found that many fishermen use nets, spears, and traps that capture immature fish of little commercial value. These methods also cause the unintended by-catch of other animals like sea turtles and the highly endangered dugong.
They began advocating the replacement of destructive gear with sustainable methods. Discussions started in 1994 with fishermen from Kenya’s South Coast area of Diani about the detrimental beach seine fishing where vertical nets are employed from the shore.
“The seines were banned in 2010. However, they are still used in some areas of the coast where people lack the political will to stop it,” Muthiga said.
One of their interventions was the modification of traditional fishing traps with an escape slot of three centimetres that allows small fish, long fish and flat fish to escape the trap while larger fish are retained.
“Fishers get a high-quality catch and therefore make more money per trap whilst reducing negative ecological impacts,” she said.
In Bamburi, just north of Mombasa city, there has been a 90 per cent uptake of the new design by trap fishers.
In 2011, the by-catch escape gaps for fishing traps won the Rare Solutions Search Prize for an innovation that benefits coastal communities and marine ecosystems, and received funding from the Kenya Coastal Development Project.
At the coast, there is a growing movement called tengefu, (meaning “set aside” in Kiswahili) in which communities agree to halt fishing for a while.
“The coral reef fish recover due to reduced fishing, and the numbers of fish increase in the tengefu and surrounding fishing grounds,” said Muthiga.
She and McClanahan have co-ordinated the planning and mapping of 13 emerging tengefu.
The Wildlife Act of Kenya outlines penalties for activities that damage a marine protected area but compliance by communities and governance by authorities remains a challenge. Consequently, tensions sometimes arise because of different priorities around the use of marine resources.
To address this challenge, marine stakeholders meet at the annual Kenya Fishers Forum.
Established by McClanahan and presented in Kiswahili, the forum brings together fishing communities, national leaders and environmental authorities to discuss findings of fisheries and coral reefs and how to co-manage ocean ecosystems.
Ultimately, says Muthiga, marine management is about “using a suite of methods that keep fish biomass at around 500kg per hectare, which greatly increases the chances of sustainability and habitat resilience.”