By Jennifer O’Leary and Arthur Tuda
Pascal Yaa is a small-scale octopus fisherman who has been fishing the coral reefs off Mombasa, Kenya since 1968. As a spear-fisher, Pascal swims the reefs daily with a mask and snorkel. Recently, he has been disturbed by what he is seeing. Increasingly, fishing nets and boats are damaging and killing large, old corals. From Pascal’s perspective, reef protection and restoration are critical to ensure long-term, sustainable fishing. In his own words, Pascal says, “Corals are the homes of fish and other animals like the octopus. Sometimes fishermen with nets will kill an entire coral to get a single fish. This means fish cannot come back, because their home is gone. I have seen a lot of change in the reefs in Mombasa in my lifetime, mainly loss of corals through damage, but also from too many sea urchins (which cause bioerosion) because the sea urchin predators are gone. And, a dead coral is not the same as a live one. When a coral dies, the fish and octopus do not stay there, even though the structure may remain for some time. Only live corals provide the habitat needed for the animals that fishermen rely on for income.”
To combat the trend of coral decline, Pascal has taken action. For 40 years, he has been working to restore damaged corals in the fished areas of the Mombasa National Marine Park and Reserve. When a large coral head (typically slow growing, massive Porites) is toppled, Pascal finds its base and rights it, sometimes fortifying its position with rocks. If a branching coral (like Acropora) has been damaged, Pascal takes the broken branches and inserts them back into the branching framework so they can keep growing. Pascal also removes kilograms of discarded nets and plastic trash from the reef every day to keep corals from being further damaged.
Do these actions help? We can answer YES – because, Pascal has kept a detailed logbook of his actions and the time it takes each coral to re-attach to the reef and heal. According to Pascal’s log, large coral heads typically take 2+ years to be firmly reattached to the ocean floor, but once they do, survival is possible. This is important, because it can take decades for a large corals to grow (as documented from Pascal’s coral growth records).
According to Pascal, the path toward long-term coral reef conservation is training. “We need to train the young fishers about corals and why they are important. Many of them don’t know. I tell them, but they don’t believe me – maybe because they have not seen what I have seen.” What Pascal says is likely true. Many Kenyan fishermen don’t know how to swim, though they go out in boats daily. As a result, some fishermen have not seen what the coral reefs look like or what happens when corals are damaged or removed.
The Kenyan Wildlife Service and the Tanzanian Marine Parks Authority have developed a program called Science for Active Management (SAM) that works with managers and stakeholders to improve marine management and conservation through monitoring and strategic, data-based decision making. Through the SAM program, Pascal has become a peer trainer for other fishermen and works with park rangers to take fishermen to the reef to snorkel and see corals. Pascal is hopeful that these trainings will make a difference.
One single fisherman has made a tremendous contribution to conservation of the fished reefs in Mombasa. It is our responsibility to support Pascal in these efforts and capitalize on his knowledge by engaging others in restoration and knowledge sharing. In the scientific literature, there is much discussion of using traditional knowledge and incorporating it into conservation planning. However, often, the discussion ends there – on paper. Pascal may not have read a single scientific paper, and his fins are old and tattered, but he has taken action that has made a measurable difference for the coral reefs he fishes.
Dr. Jennifer O’Leary is a marine conservation biologist with California Sea Grant, a faculty member at California Polytechnic State University’s Center for Coastal and Marine Sciences, and a former fisheries manager. Arthur Tuda is marine protected area professional from the Kenya Wildlife Service and currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Cadiz, Spain. The SAM program was initiated through a conservation fellowship to J. O’Leary from the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation, and is currently supported through a grant from the Marine Science for Management program of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association. Follow J. O’Leary on Twitter @JeniOLeary and the SAM Program @WIO_SAM.