By Jennifer O’Leary and Arthur Tuda
When you think about East Africa, probably the first images that emerge are of large terrestrial animals like elephants and lions. Many people don’t know that East Africa has vibrant marine fishing communities and hundreds of miles of coral reefs. In a typical morning, you watch the sun rise over the Western Indian Ocean, sip spicy tea, hear morning calls to prayer from the mosque, and see fishers heading out to the sea. These fishers work from small canoes, or even broken surfboards, to support families. But, increasing human populations and lack of effective management can turn once pristine and productive reefs into barrens.
Since the 1960s, East Africa has been ahead of many nations in establishing marine protected areas (MPAs). Similar to land-based national parks, MPAs protect reefs from human disturbances and often establish no-fishing zones. This allows reefs to recover, regaining lost corals and fish to become harbors of biodiversity. Entering an MPA is like going back in time and seeing what reefs were like before humans. Establishment of MPAs has been increasing, but only about three percent of the ocean is covered. Further, MPAs are often not managed after establishment, reducing or eliminating their effectiveness. Outside influences like climate change, pollution, and overfishing near MPA boundaries can result in significant harm to the ecosystem.
What is critically needed for MPAs globally is science-based management. With scientific data, managers can set objectives with measurable targets, use data to evaluate progress, determine necessary management actions, and evaluate effectiveness of actions. This process, called adaptive management, sounds simple. And it can be if managers and stakeholders understand how to use basic scientific data strategically.
In 2009, we (the authors) formed the SAM (Science for Active Management) with the Kenya Wildlife Service to help East African MPA managers and local fishers understand and manage their reefs. When the program started in a single Kenyan MPA, managers had a very low understanding of marine systems, and one MPA had lost many corals. Fishers felt disengaged from MPA management and were not actively managing their fishing grounds. Most people working on the beaches had never been to the MPA and did not know what a coral reef was. Through SAM, managers, fishers, and beach stakeholders received training in marine ecological and social systems and learned to conduct simple, scientifically sound monitoring. Stakeholders were taken to the reefs for the first time. MPA managers and fishers were guided through the process of developing measurable social and ecological objectives for marine systems. MPA rangers (with stakeholders) then started monthly social and ecological monitoring to get data needed to assess objectives and to be aware of changes in the system as they occur.
The results of using science to empower communities have exceeded expectations. Prior to SAM, the MPA social system felt apathetic. Now, when you enter an area with an MPA in Kenya, you can feel the excitement. For four years, rangers have been collecting and analyzing data, and findings are comparable to those of experienced researchers. Rangers now train their peers in monitoring and management techniques, and they have taken major management actions: invasive species were removed from MPA beaches to enhance turtle nesting, corals damaged by fishing are being restored with help from fishers, and the public beach that was covered in plastic trash for decades is spotless!
Their efforts have had impact beyond the MPA: the County Government has made plastic-free beaches a priority, and pride in the marine system has visibly increased. Over 550 people attended a recent beach clean up, including police forces, hoteliers (chefs in hats included), beach stakeholders, and the Minister of Tourism. Fishers and Kenya Wildlife Service rangers did a joint project using tagging to look at levels of fish spillover from MPAs. The stakeholders selling their curios on the beach have become MPA ambassadors, resulting in an increase in domestic tourism to MPAs. “MPA Champions” have surfaced from all sectors. For example, Champion Pascal Yaa is a fisher who keeps meticulous records of coral damage in fishing grounds and now serves as a peer trainer for fishers in best practices. The next time a stress to the marine system occurs, managers and stakeholder will be aware and prepared to take action.
The benefits of the SAM approach are clear, and use is expanding. The Kenya Wildlife Service has nationally implemented the program, serving as a model for the region, and the Tanzania Marine Parks and Reserves Unit launched a pilot program last year. Additionally, we recently trained 30 MPA managers from 8 Western Indian Ocean nations on how to implement SAM.
We have seen that capacity building in science can dramatically change the social-ecological system and develop empowered conservation leaders. We envision a global team of MPA Champions and a management network that allows exchanges between nations. We believe this science-based approach enables self-driven conservation that will make a global difference.
Jennifer O’Leary is a marine 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.