Category Archives: Marine


Have you ever thought about the coral reef habitat? Coral reefs are rocky mounds and/or ridges formed in the sea by small animals known as coral polyps through the accumulation and deposition of limestone (calcium carbonate). The “rain forests of the ocean,” coral reefs are biodiversity hotspots that make up less than 1% of the marine environment but are home to 25% of the ocean’s marine life. Coral reefs are of great importance in the ecosystem. They are the second richest biodiversity of any habitat in the world, feeding grounds, nursery ground and shelter for many organism including turtles, sea snakes, triggerfish, parrotfish, nudibranchs (a colourful type of sea slug), crustaceans, hermit crabs and sharks. Aside from their stunning beauty and rich marine life, coral reefs provide protection to coastal communities from shoreline erosion and chemical compounds extracted from coral are used in medicine for cancer and other diseases. Coral reefs are threatened by pollution, careless boat anchoring, high turbidity from poor farming practices upstream and climate change causing coral bleaching.

Given this background, A Rocha Kenya’s marine research and environmental education teams saw it fit to develop a Marine Environmental Education Manual specifically tailored for the Watamu Marine Protected Area to create awareness and address the conservation of the aforementioned habitat and the rest of the marine ecosystem. It will be used by both teachers and students in learning more about their marine ecosystem, which they readily interact with and are dependent upon.  This was done in partnership with two other organizations which are; Local Ocean Trust: Watamu Turtle Watch and African Bill fish Foundation together with the patrons to the environmental clubs selected from the eight schools that are part of the program.

The visits to the schools were interactive, fun filled and eye opening for the students, with the activity known as “the egg-carton coral activity” being intriguing and exciting. Through it, the students could easily relate to how a coral reef is built, the two ways in which corals feed and how corals behave at night and during the day. Apart from the school visits, we invited one school for a rock pooling activity at the beach in front of Mwamba. It brought the students to attention about the diversity of life in the rock pools.

The teachers were also engaged through two workshops with the first geared towards disseminating as much knowledge as possible regarding the marine ecosystem. The second saw the teachers’ capacity built on how to conduct an environmental education lesson followed by familiarization and interactions with the marine biodiversity through various activities that they could adopt and practice them back at school with their clubs, such as crab surveys, beach sand art, making an organic tower, swimming, night rock pooling and a snorkeling trip to the Watamu coral gardens.

The schools are now closed for the April holidays marking the end of term one with the lessons we conducted having managed to reach out to two hundred and forty four (244) children from eight schools near the Watamu Marine Protected Area. Two main topics were covered that is, the coral reef habitat and the intertidal area.

CRISP PILLOW CORAL- A coral living on the ‘EDGE’

Found only in the warm tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the crisp pillow coral Anomastraea irregularis is a rare endemic. Most people snorkeling around the reef don’t see it because it is so small. It forms flat, encrusting colonies or mound-like structures that can grow up to 20 centimeters high in shallow waters. Despite its small size, it has a tall tale to tell. First, it is the only species in its genus which means if this species disappears, the whole genus becomes extinct. Being in a monospecific genus (the only species in the genus) also suggests that it has a different evolutionary path from other coral families and species.


Crisp pillow coral is categorized as an Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species and in urgent need for conservation. Poorly studied, the ecology and habits of this coral are not well-understood. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has it listed as Vulnerable on its Red List. The IUCN red list is a database that provides information on the global status of species facing high risk of extinction.

It grows at the base of shallow reefs with tidal pools where it is sandy with turbid water. Colonies are found at depths of two to 18 meters where light is available. As a zooxanthallate, the crisp pillow coral lives in symbiosis with a microalgae within its tissue which photosynthesizes and provides it with energy. The species therefore can only grow in areas with sufficient light for the microalgae to photosynthesize. However, the coral also feed through its tentacles which are normally extended out during the day unlike most species of coral that have their tentacles retracted during the day. Found in shallow tidal pools exposes it to damage such as people trampling on it to being smothered by algae.


Corals secrete calcium carbonate. A coral reef is made of thin layers of calcium carbonate. Coral polyps form a living mat over a calcium carbonate skeleton. Coral reefs are home to a quarter of the world’s marine species. They have numerous functions such as protecting the coastlines from eroding into the sea to providing fishers with fishing grounds. Scientists are studying how corals and coral reefs are likely to change with climate change. Increasing sea surface temperature because of climate change is altering their symbiosis with the algae and exposing them to other damaging factors such as coral diseases and pollution. Understanding the habitats and structure of species of corals like the crisp pillow coral can provide an insight on how corals are likely to adapt to stress. This can help to design a roadmap to conserving it. Setting up marine protected areas that are properly managed is important. Everyone needs to act responsibly to save the seas by reducing waste, pollution and carbon emissions because they affect the water and life within.


Oceans form incredible habitats that provide immense benefits in tourism, fisheries and coastal protection. Think about coral reefs, mangrove forests and other near-shore marine habitats, systems that are closely tied to people’s socio-economic and cultural values. However, over the last several decades, tremendous changes have taken place so fast that it has confused most of the people who have always depended on the oceans. From over-fishing, destructive fishing, pollution and climate change, the ocean systems are deteriorating so fast that predictions are towards functional extinction in the near future. It’s very evident that nobody wants to lose all these ocean values thus everybody is thinking of or looking for a way out.


Looking at what has worked or not, is it important? Managing marine ecosystems is a challenge. First; the ocean is an open system and vast, which is very difficult to enforce or control. People will go out fishing and if they don’t get enough they will put more effort the following day and eventually the situation gets worse. Marine protected areas were widely acknowledged as an effective tool that would get us out. With the ability to act as a refugia and breeding ground where fish would grow in abundance and biomass and spill over to areas that are open to fishing, these come with their challenges-; their management. Initially most of them were centrally-managed, mainly designed and managed by central governments with limited or no engagement of the local communities. There are also limited perceived benefits to the communities and conflicting interests among the different users. These areas were closed for extractive activities and open to tourism. While anyone working in tourism will be happy to embrace the idea, since the better the condition, the better the business for them. But what about the fishermen? What would make them support these protected area that have pushed them away from their fishing ground without any meaningful incentive? While they have had their success stories, centrally-managed protected areas have never realized their full potential.

Over the last decade especially along the East African coast ­, there has been a rise of locally managed marine areas (LMMAs). This is where communities established an area with some kind of restrictions; completely no-take, gear restricted or periodic closure. LMMAs have solved some of the challenges faced by centrally-managed protected areas. Giving the communities direct dependent on the marine resource ownership and lead-role in their management. They have been greatly embraced as partly solution to the management of marine resources. They have their challenges which are; limited managerial capacity of the community members especially on issues such as financial management often causing conflicts among their members and limited funding. It is clear that these forms of management might offer a better solution than some of other strategies if communities are properly assisted.

The take home question would be what to do with already established centrally-managed marine areas. Case example, while no-take zone (parks) in Kenya has contributed significantly to the management of marine resources, reserves which are gear-restricted have not performed well. They are highly over exploited and there is no difference between them and complete open areas. Will it help if they are passed on to communities that have been properly trained to run them? Or can there be co-management with the government agencies?


People and nature are interlinked. We have always been dependent and interacted with the environment for centuries, obtaining both economic and ecological benefits. Within the marine environments, the Inter tidal zone stands out as among the areas with the most interaction with humans and human activities. While the other habitats are very vital providing fishing grounds and sea routes, the Inter tidal zone is where all the action begins. The zone is easily accessible for multiple human use, such as Inter tidal fisheries harvesting, harbor and recreational activities. These areas have been endowed with rich diversity of species that contribute to the provision of these ecological and economic benefits. However when it comes to their management, the coin turns and they seldom receive the same attention. The multiple human uses and their location at the transition between the land and the sea suggest that, these areas might be facing more pressure originating from both the sea and land. A closer look around, points to probably a higher rate of declining biodiversity in these areas than other areas due to over-exploitation of resources, pollution and other natural pressure such as the rising sea level. This calls for urgent re-look at the management of strategies currently being used in these areas.


We start by asking a few questions; are the current threats facing this zone too obvious or do we need to understand them better? A recent report on natural resources management pointed out that one of the hindrance to ecosystem-based management is lack of proper understanding of cumulative human impacts on the environment. This sounds a familiar case in the Inter tidal zone. They have been used for many years but never seemed to be perturbed by these disturbances at least in the short term. And that’s where we should start.


For effective management of these areas, we need to understand how they are working. For example; them being a transition between land and sea makes it really difficult to point out a few sources of threats that are causing the pressure. With the multiple stresses and the shifting baseline trends in the state of ecosystems, it can be easily but wrongly concluded that particular drivers are responsible. Additionally, emerging threats that are threatening the environment globally are also contributing to the decline of these systems. So do all these factors act synergistic-ally or are they additive? A clear understanding of these factors will provide an effective evidence-based management strategy.

This year the ARK marine team will be studying some of these issues and try to suggest management measures for the Inter tidal zone of Watamu Marine National Park and reserve. Join us as we seek to better understand this zone in one of the oldest marine protected areas in the world.


As world leaders gather in Paris, France for the #COP21 to discuss on climate change and hopeful come up with a new deal to address the climate change challenge, many agree that we have had enough science and research pointing at climate change not happening in the next few years, but now it is happening and though a bit too late, it’s time to act.

The impacts of climate change are well known and it’s not something to smile about. Among the habitats where climate change has had the most impact is the ocean ecosystem especially the near-shore habitats which have direct benefit to millions of people. Release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through burning of fossil fuels are causing global warming. Global warming results to increased sea surface temperature that causes coral bleaching in tropical areas where coral reefs occur. Corals thrive near their upper temperature tolerance and therefore any slight increase in temperature breaks down the symbiotic relationship between corals and microalgae and hence bleaching. Coral bleaching affect not only the corals but if it persists and corals die all the biodiversity depending on them for survival will perish.

UY5 April

Bleaching in April 2013 on a permanent quadrant

The Ocean plays a role in reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere but this also comes at a cost further threatening these systems. The ocean absorbs the CO2 from the atmosphere but the increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere means more is or has to be absorbed than the ocean can take causing ocean acidification.

Coral bleaching and ocean acidification are deteriorating coral reefs conditions all over the world and jeopardizing all ecological and socio-economic values that they provide to millions of people depending on them directly or indirectly. Global warming is also causing rise in sea-level damaging coastal states and people’s livelihoods. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its recent (2013) report had predicted that there will be 26 to 82cm rise in the sea level in the next a hundred years. What does this mean for islands states such as Maldives?

The impacts of climate change and their associated consequences are already being felt both at global, regional and local level and paint a bleak picture to people and livelihoods. We are hopeful that all leaders and nations present at the COP21 meeting will come up with a deal for climate change and a commitment that will reduce carbon emissions. While this is very important, what can we do at a local level? How do we build the ability of both society and ecological system to adapt to climate change as we buy time for recovery of these systems with low carbon emissions?

In a small town in the North coast of Kenya, Watamu, we are working in a small marine protected area to try to understand and build the resilience of the coral reefs and the communities here. Watamu Marine National Park is one of the oldest marine park in the world and was seriously impacted by the 1998 El Nino event that caused up to 80% coral loss, and has experienced slow rates of recovery ever since. There was a minor bleaching event in 2013 which we recorded relatively good recovery. Some coral reefs have been reported to develop tolerance to thermal stress. The good recovery in 2013 could be argued that the corals are adapting to thermal stress but a more weighted argument could be that the thermal stress was not as intense as that one in 1998. Whichever scenario is correct, we are working to have a better understanding on this at a local level.

Scientific predictions are pointing at a stronger El nino event, that might cause bleaching early next year, we are preparing to monitor the bleaching event within the protected area and surrounding areas. With marked quadrats and corals that we used in 2013, we will be going back to the same spots and checking the response of the corals in the event of bleaching. This will give us an understanding of whether these corals are adapting to thermal stress and which sites are more resilient and hence need more protection.


UY5 October

Recovery in October 2013 on a permanent quadrant

We are also working with local reef users and the government agencies to raise awareness on coral reefs and climate change and influence reduction of local stressors. Our overall goal is to ensure everybody understands these threats and come up with appropriate management strategies for continued structural and functional existence of the coral reefs.


Remarking permanent quadrant in October 2015


In a workshop explaining bleaching


A personal initiative in managing our beaches

A few weeks ago on the International Coastal Cleanup Day, volunteers gathered along the coasts all over the world to collect marine debris and raise awareness on marine trash. We have all heard about this problem or seen photos of filthy beaches. We know about the pacific garbage patch and how plastics are harming the oceans and just to add you a little more in case you didn’t know already microplastics are causing more harm to marine creatures than the trash we mostly collect on the beach, I am not saying we stop collecting trash I am saying the problem is extending to a danger zone we cannot handle.


Every year the statistics points to more volunteers and more trash collected and concerns have been raised that cleanups only would not solve this problem and that more aggressive and workable strategies should be employed. Recently the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) through the Global programme of Action of Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities launch a Massive Open Online Course on marine litter as well as raise awareness of this problem. The scientists have been asked to investigate where all this trash is coming from. This could be a great point to stop the source of the problem but really don’t we know where flip flops, plastic bottles or glass bottles come from?


We all think it’s somebody else’s fault that beaches are littered with plastics.  We use them in our day to day lives, but we don’t care where they end up in. We have many problems facing the worlds’ oceans currently, but marine is one we can easily solve (though there is need to emphasize in the long run) by simply being cautious with actions. How often do you see people throw trash on the road? We carry water bottles and snacks wrappers to our trip to the beach, leave them there and later complain the next time we find the beach littered with wrappers.

Easy to say your action will not have any impact but it will. Don’t do it and next time tell you friend not to do it. At the end of the day we will have cleaner beaches, less trash in the ocean and less creatures getting strangled by plastics and other debris.


Participatory management of Marine Protected Areas


Living in at the coast, the sites and sound of miles and miles of clear blue seas is familiar. You could easily be overwhelmed just by looking at it, beautiful and glistening in the sun, the mighty water crashing on the reef crests and strong Kusi winds that are of great delight to the avid kite surfers.  But if you look carefully just beyond the collection of water and salt and waves, you see livelihoods… A fisherman who needs the fish so he can pay his bills, the beach operator carrying out rock pooling for tourists, the local trader selling beautiful beads, the sweaty guard in uniform keeping crime at bay, the scientist furiously engrossed in a study of tiny corals in the rock pools and the occasional KWS boat splashing by in their patrol rounds.




You see the coast is not just what meets the eye; it is Science, beauty, fun and livelihoods all in one. It is estimated that 60% of the world’s population lives along the coast. The fisheries sector pumps millions to the global economy each year and is an important protein source to many low income coastal communities. The waters and sandy beaches are a delight to many a tourists and this bolsters our economy. The scientists see the coast beyond the blue waters for its many ecological services, protection from erosion, carbon sequestration that serves to avert global warming crisis the reefs a biodiversity hotspot that is affected by man in as much as our dear lives actually depend on it.

Marine and coastal issues are technically and politically complex, involving many interests, perspectives, and stakeholders. While we all claim to have a stake on the coast, it begs the question, who is responsible for this resource? If this question is not adequately addressed we all at risk to suffer the well known tragedy of commons; where shared resources though on the short term lead to individual gain eventually ends in collective loss.  While this was realized a while back, the plethora of management methods applied to combat it has been little but sustainable. While it seemed plausible to apply top-down approach where management decisions were made by the government and handed down to the people, these were neither acceptable nor applicable. This led to steady decline in quality of coastal areas that are already hampered with pollution, waste management, over fishing, uncontrolled beach development to say the least.

As such, it has become increasingly important to incorporate participatory management of protected areas. It involves the participation of all stakeholders in management, from planning, decision making right to implementation. This includes everybody from the fisherman, beach operator, NGOs, Private sector, the Government and local authorities alike.  This is because the fisherman or scientist has as much at stake as the gun wielding soldier to protect the coast, for different reasons. In a well managed protected area, everyone benefits, the fisherman gets his food and pays his bills, the scientist makes astounding discoveries God’s creation of the wonders below the waves and the soldier protects the coast so the tourists keep streaming in and the country earns foreign exchange. In this way although we have individual gains from the resource, we share responsibility. This will foster sustainability in the long run.

By Marxine Waite


Linking Forests and reefs conservation


Coral reefs ecosystems are complex marine habitats, very valuable to societies but very vulnerable. Currently they are on the verge of disappearing because of numerous threats facing them. Just as complex as they are, their management is also complex. Many strategies have been brought forward, what works and what doesn’t has never been easy to tell. What is clear though, there is no one distinct solution to the coral reef crisis. Looking holistically at all the drivers of reef health and tackling them at different levels might work. Linking forests and coral reefs conservation could be one way of handling drivers of reef health.


Other than for mangrove forests the role of other forests for the well-being of coral reefs and other near-shore marine habitats is often overlooked. Conservation and management of terrestrial forests is never connected to the health of coral reefs and local communities around forests never understand their contribution to reef degradation.


Coral reefs can be negatively affected by human activities further upstream. Among the issues affecting coral reefs globally that results from land-based activities include sedimentation and nutrient and chemical pollution. Sedimentation cuts access of sunlight to corals hence preventing them from photosynthesizing reducing coral growth and coral reef productivity. Sediments can also direct smother corals killing them. Sedimentation results from poor farming practices and forests degradation upstream, these activities leave soil bare that is easily washed downstream by rain.

Discharge of fertilizers from farms can result to nutrient loading into coastal waters. Introduction of nutrients into coral reefs causes proliferation of algae that always compete with corals for space. This suppresses the growth and recruitment of corals and therefore degrading the whole reef ecosystem. Chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides on the other hand are toxic to corals and other reef biodiversity capable of killing them.

The health of forests both adjacent and further from coral reefs is important to maintain their health. Illegal logging and charcoal burning is as important to coral reefs as it is to terrestrial biodiversity. When designing management plans for the forests we should as well put in mind how that would contribute to the well-being of coral reefs. Communities living around forest should be made aware how their activities upstream can adversely affect other ecosystems downstream.



Have you ever seen a shark? I have been lucky enough to see sharks…. well; I have only seen three sharks in my lifetime just a few metres from the backyard Mwamba Field study Centre. They were black tip reef sharks, all three of them swimming gracefully in a circular pattern very close to the shore. It was an exhilarating experience, well because it was my first real encounter besides the movie stuff. If you don’t want to see one yet, I don’t blame you. The sight of a popping fin moving in predictable patterns on the surface of the ocean sends shivers down many a spine. These fins would only mean one thing; sharks. Fueled by the many years of terrible Hollywood movies that depict sharks as ferocious man eaters most people are afraid of them.

Even before the advent of these movies sharks were historically viewed as savage creatures of the deep and therefore were hunted in a bid to make the ocean “safe”. This has led to the endangering of these creatures that are little if not misunderstood. While the reality of sharks attacking people exists, this is an extremely biased conclusion to be applied for all sharks. Out of the over 400 species of sharks known and recorded only 5 are that aggressive. It has taken the intervention of marine biologists working long hours to study, understand and hopefully change this popular perception.

Contrary to popular belief that killing off sharks would lead to a safer ocean, the reality couldn’t be possibly farther way. Sharks play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem. They serve to remove disease plagued fish from the ocean in this regard contributing to a healthier ocean. If there were no sharks, the ocean systems might even collapse. No sharks mean uncontrolled populations of smaller herbivorous fish that feed on algae and sea grass. Too many small fish would then overgraze and deplete marine plants which are also habitats for other marine creatures.

Did you know that sharks do not have bones? Their skeleton is made up of cartilage; this is also found in human ears and noses. This gives shark a distinct advantage over other fish as it is very flexible and can easily navigate corners. Another interesting fact is that sharks have multiple rows of teeth; some even have 50 rows!! Sharks’ teeth also never get cavities as they are fortified with fluoride (imagine your body making its own version of toothpaste). Some sharks glow in the dark such as Green Lantern sharks and others have feet like Epaulette sharks. In the hundreds of species of sharks we know, God has made them all unique and with peculiar interesting characteristics that would not fit in this short article.

Sharks today are endangered because of over exploitation for various reasons. A curious delicacy in Asian countries; fin soup spells a particularly cruel death to sharks. Sharks are fished just to obtain the fins then they are released back into the ocean to die a pitiful slow death. Some people hunt sharks for their teeth which are used to make jewellery.

God made all creatures of the earth for a reason. Through research and Science we now understand to some extent why we have sharks in the ocean. Wouldn’t it be lovely to say hello to our black tip reef friends when you ever get a chance?

Author:  Peter Musembi

Marine Researcher

A Glance at the Intertidal Zone.

The intertidal zone is a highly dynamic area but one that plays important ecological roles as well as providing economic or livelihood benefits. The intertidal zone is the area that is periodically inundated or exposed depending on the tidal regime. This forms habitats such as rocky shores, sandy beaches, mudflats and sea grass beds. Due to the intervals of high and low tides, the area is highly dynamic with fluctuating conditions such as temperature, salinity and light intensity. There is also a lot of influence from land-based factors such as freshwater run-off. This makes it difficult for organisms to survive here, only those that are specifically adapted to such environments are able to maintain a niche. Such organisms are called permanent residents.


Corals thriving in an intertidal area.
Transient organisms visit the intertidal zone to feed on debris and planktons brought by the tides. Other transient species come to the intertidal zone to rest or breed. This emphasizes the vital role of this habitat in the wellbeing of adjacent areas. The intertidal zone is also influenced by a handful of anthropogenic factors because humans can easily access it. Intertidal invertebrates harvesting, for instance, is a prominent human activity in this habitat and has been widely carried out in different parts of the world for many years. If this is further overlooked, and continues beyond the carrying capacity, it will definitely lead to biodiversity loss. Tourism and harbor activities such as careless anchorage of boats causes habitat damage which will eventually jeopardize the ecological and economic roles of these areas.
In terms of research and monitoring intertidal areas form perfect platforms for understanding processes of other marine habitats. Think of, for example, corals that thrive in the intertidal zone. We all know corals do well in areas with relatively stable conditions such as temperature and light intensity, conditions that are hardly present in the intertidal areas. The obvious question is: so how do these corals survive here? Understanding the community structure of corals in the intertidal areas, gives an insight on how corals are likely to adapt to changing conditions.
For the restoration of the intertidal habitat a sustainable management strategy is indispensable. Understanding its ecological dynamics and involving all stakeholders in the management is commendable.


A Rocha Kenya staff carrying out research in the intertidal zone.