Category Archives: Marine

THE BlUE-STREAK CLEANER WRASSE

Reef fish are awesome because they come in so many shapes, sizes and colors. This amazing diversity of colors though awesome can be a nightmare for researchers trying to identify them.

The cleaner wrasse co-existing with other reef fish is a perfect example. Cleaner wrasse is a small reef fish that you often see around the reefs. Other than the blue color and a lateral stripe running down its body, nothing really sets this fish apart and sometimes, they go unnoticed among the large reef fish (“bouncers”). However, the Cleaner wrasse lives a very interesting life. They are usually seen alone or in a family of 6-8 individuals with one male. There is a lot of competition and predation in coral reefs and organisms have to look for ways to survive. Cleaner wrasse has devised a strategy to survive.

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Cleaner wrasse cleaning a bullet head parrot fish

As the name suggests, Cleaner wrasse clean other fish. They are carnivores feeding on tiny parasites that are found in other larger reef fishes. Instead of hiding or running away from their predators, they live with them by setting up “cleaning stations” where they clean the larger fishes. The males are usually territorial and establish the cleaning station with several females. They perform a “small dance” by moving their tail up and down, to invite the larger fish. The larger fish know this ‘invitation’ and allow the Cleaner wrasse to feed on the parasites and scraps of dead skin on their body. The larger fish in turn provides protection to the Cleaner wrasse.

They begin their life as females and then some change to a male. When a male heading a family dies, a female in the group – usually a bigger one – changes into a male to replace the dead male or set up another family.

The tiny blenny (also a reef fish) mimics the colors and behavior of the Cleaner wrasse to get a free meal. But this notorious little fish bites off pieces of flesh from its unsuspecting “client” instead of cleaning.

Cleaner wrasses are important for healthy coral reefs. However they are over-fished for aquariums even though they do not thrive in aquariums. They die within a few days of captivity because they cannot feed on the parasites and dead skin of the big fish.

When the Cleaner wrasse population goes down, there is danger of parasites increasing on other reef fish leading to an unhealthy reef. So it’s better to leave the Cleaner wrasse with their cleaning stations in the reefs.

THE NOT SO SILENT REEFS

Did you know that coral reefs are not as quiet as they seem. There are various sounds that are produced by the many creatures found in the reef from parrot fish scrubbing the substrates to shrimps with their pincers and sea urchins eroding the calcium carbonate. But just in case you thought the sounds were to entertain snorkelers and divers think again. Actually most snorkelers and divers are never keen enough to listen to the sounds. These sounds are very critical for the survival of some of the species living here. Take a clownfish for example; we know of their symbiotic relation with sea anemone. But did you know that the female clownfish lays its eggs on rocks beneath the anemone.

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These eggs they hatch and the baby clownfish are released to the open ocean. After several weeks when they are grown they have to find their way to the home reef through the sounds produced by the reef creatures. If the reef is unhealthy there are less of these creatures and therefore less sounds making it hard for the clownfish to locate the reefs. Climate change and other anthropogenic are degrading reefs and making it hard for most of these spectacular species to thrive. New evidence of ocean acidification also suggests that the increasing acidity of ocean water may affect the inner ear of clownfish and making it even harder for them to hear the sounds and locate a healthy reef. Let’s play our role in keeping the coral reefs healthy and help Nemo locate home.

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THE WORDS OF A MARINE INTERN FROM A ROCHA KENYA

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My arrival at Watamu remains a day to remember and maybe written down for a #TBT memoir in time to come. Well, I was headed to A Rocha Kenya and to confirm my disbelief was the overwhelming atmosphere of a serene and spectacular haven located 200 meters from Tembo road –The Mwamba Field Study Center –Indeed, this is how my excitement exploded, not with a thunder, but a forced squeeze that left me peaceful!

Believe it or not, where everybody else would cave in was the Mwamba Field Study Center. Here I found the most amazing hospitality services like there is in Watamu, the warm reception and the ecological harmony are key ingredients of A Rocha Kenya’s programme. Apparently, almost everyone. All kept their spirits high in readiness to conserve and protect the environment. And amidst the many questions that preoccupied my mind, I was sure that I had just but gotten into a family dedicated to fulfilling God’s work!

Imagine the illustrations, the marine research programme which is still at infancy serves at its best. Sooner did I know that my patience will be compromised and rush to answer the one big question, is Watamu Marine National Park the most biologically diverse marine ecosystem in Kenya and meet my research needs? This wasn’t going to happen in a broken town with a broken ecotourism heart. It was taking place in one of the lucrative coastal areas in the world –the home to Hemmingways Watamu, Ocean Sports Resort, Turtle Bay and the Humpback Whale watching point in Watamu Marine Association, where the world appreciates as the best tourist destination in Kenya.

In efforts to learn about expectation-management, my skepticism paid well when I met Mr. Stanley Baya who explained to me the subtle meanings of the Environmental Education and Arabuko Sokoke Schools & Ecotourism Scheme (ASSETS). Now I attend workshops for ASSETS! From generating income for sustainable ecotourism to offering bursaries to needy children in schools within Watamu, ASSETS has kept its head above the waters despite the raging waves of this ‘Kusi season’.

Mwamba Field Study center meets the demand for all nature of activities be it conferences, prayer meetings, conservation research work . . . etc. For instance, the events of the last few days did prove that the community in Watamu is a huge asset to environmental education and awareness, thanks to a workshop organized by A Rocha Kenya’s Science and Conservation Programme. The management and conservation of coastal and marine resources in Watamu is a common goal for all. You want government intervention on tourism aIMG_20160510_141238nd foster ownership of these resources –the democratic mantra? The workshop carried plenty of that and the community of beach and boat operators loved the entire package with much gratitude to Mr. Justin of Watamu Marine Association.

The strength and commitment in A Rocha Kenya is an expression of the imprint of God in the organization and each day there is abundance of hope. Although I haven’t given an account of all the awesome experience at A Rocha Kenya, I have found the marine research programme able to definitively answer my question and sooner or later all my wise skepticism of the rich biodiversity in Watamu Marine National Park will be proven dead wrong. As entrepreneurs hop into an age of the gig economy, the Western Indian Ocean community has focused on assessment of coral reef bleaching and the marine research programme has adopted that as a pilot project.

How do you preserve optimum conditions for recovery of bleached corals? The way forward is a composite of distilled wisdom on this subject, mind elevating, critical thinking and imparting skills. And the scientific community seem to agree a sustainable tomorrow despite troubled times of global warming and increased anthropogenic factors. Surely, behind the magical sandy beaches there is learning and I can’t get enough of everything that A Rocha Kenya has to offer.

KNOW MORE ABOUT MORAY EELS

Moral eels live in coral reefs among coral heads and rocks. They look like snakes but are in fact fish with elongated slender bodies with a dorsal fin that runs from their head to their tail. Moray eels hide in holes or crevices among rocks and corals with their head stuck out of the hole ready to ambush unsuspecting prey.

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Geometric Moray Eel

They hunt at night relying on their sense of smell because they have poor eye sight. As carnivorous animals, their diet is mostly fish, molluscs and crustaceans. The giant moray eel has been reported to attack and eat reef sharks.

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Giant Moray Eel

Moray eels in turn are eaten by larger reef fish like groupers, barracuda and sharks. People eat them too. Their mouth is usually open revealing a set of scary teeth which can give you a nasty bite. But they usually prefer to stay hidden. They have to continually open and close their mouths to have water circulating around their gills which are at the back of their heads. To keep their skin smooth and not injured while swimming in the coral beds, eels secrete mucus over the skin.

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Lipspot Moray

An amazing fact

Moray eels have two sets of teeth. One set is in the throat and the other in the mouth. The teeth in the throat are called pharyngeal jaws, which are thrust forward to grab and drag prey down through their digestive system. The teeth are also pointed backwards, which prevents the victim from escaping. Moray eels that become used to people feeding them can be aggressive and seek food from them. This is dangerous because moray eels have poor sight and can accidentally bite off the fingers of the feeders. Another danger is that introducing more food in nature creates an ecological imbalance and could affect the animal with disease.

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THE “RAIN FORESTS OF THE OCEAN”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

MANAGEMENT OF COASTAL AND MARINE ECOSYSTEMS; WHERE ARE WE?

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.

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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?

STRATEGIC MANAGEMENT OF INTERTIDAL ZONES

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.

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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.

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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.

CORAL REEFS AND CLIMATE CHANGE

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.

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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.

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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.

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Remarking permanent quadrant in October 2015

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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.

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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?

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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.