By Shawn Peabody, Locally Managed Marine Area Coordinator, Toliara – Madagascar
I didn’t know that clown fish could be so cocky, at least not outside their protective sea anemone. If I were a clown fish, I would be cocky only when snuggly tucked in among colourful, poisonous appendages. Are clown fish themselves poisonous? That would explain it, but I doubt it. And yet as I swim around this aquarium like reef, the ‘Nemo’ fish repeatedly accosts me – I swear one even tried to bite me.
I’m not complaining of course, it’s a great thrill to be in a place like this. I’ve worked in marine conservation for 5 years and never seen such underwater spectacles. Admittedly, however, I don’t spend much time in the water, especially not with my desk job in Toliara, which is miles from any good snorkelling opportunities. Regardless, this reef in Southern Kenya is different. It’s called the Kiruwito Marine Park; it’s a small near-shore lagoon four kilometres wide and maybe half a kilometre from shore to reef. The area has been protected by the local fishing communities for more than 6 years.
The guide tells us a story almost too good to be true. He says that 6 years ago, at this very spot, the reef was totally dead. Urchins ruled the area and sea cucumbers, indicator species of overfishing pressure, were nowhere to be seen. As Conservation Coordinator for Blue Ventures, this is exactly the kind of success story I want to hear and see. This is what gets me out of bed every morning – imagining that we’ll get to a point where the trend of habitat degradation not just stabilises, but turns around and bounces back. Despite my excitement, I couldn’t shake a bit of cynicism. “Really?” I said. “Listen, I work in marine conservation, I know how challenging these things can be. Are you sure this wasn’t a good site before it was protected? Wasn’t that why you chose it?”
“No, we chose this site because it was unproductive. We didn’t think we were giving up much. Trust me, I’ve been snorkelling here for years, this place is getting better and better.” The guide replied.
“Have the clown fish always been so aggressive?”
“What are you talking about?”
Probing a bit further about their challenges and experiences, our guide and later the president of the Kiruwito association told me that some fisherman aren’t happy about keeping the area closed. Now that it’s full of fish, they want to open it back up. Right now they are in the minority but our guide worries that if hard times return, like the crisis surrounding the elections in 2010, that these fishers might win a majority or they might simply start poaching. Livelihoods diversification programmes are something that the community has been hoping for, for a long time but nothing substantial has yet to really materialise. Other challenges that they face are more of the garden-variety, developing state type where the government gives only sporadic support and the legal structure of the association& protected area is not totally clear.
After such a great experience at Kiruwito, I decided to visit another Kenyan Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA). I travelled south from Mombasa by bus for a few hours to Wasini Island, site of another long-standing community managed marine park. The president of Wasini’s Fisherman Association met me at the docks and took us on his friend’s small boat over to the community reserve. On my tiny handheld video camera I recorded as he spilled his guts about the years of struggle with local hotel owners, government officials, & migrant fishermen who use destructive fishing practices. It seems that either Kiruwito has had an especially easy experience, or perhaps my new guide was a bit more frank about the problems.
I jumped into the water expecting a marine reserve that had gone through a bit more wear and tear over the years than Kiruwito. My expectations were correct as this site showed more coral damage quite a few scraps of fishing lines and nets. Overall however, coral cover was good and probably due to the deeper depth of the site (10–15m compared to Kiruwito’s 1-4m) there were some much larger coral structures. The most interesting spot was the cement pile-ons of an old pier that sticks out over the reserve. These pile-ons were covered top to bottom with a variety of corals, with large fish circling around the base and smaller fish circling around in schools at the higher levels.
Unlike Kiruwito, this protected area had already been in good condition before it was protected. However, the president was quick to assure me that in the last few years, he had seen more and more large fish at the site. Something that he said was corroborated by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society who have been routinely monitoring the site with underwater surveys. Outside the reserve fish catches seem to be stabilising as well, although this can’t be directly attributed to the LMMA because on the other side of the island is a very large, government managed Marine Protected Area (MPA) which has also been closed for some time.
Returning to Madagascar, I’m encouraged by the LMMAs I visited in Kenya. I know that the two sites I went to were some of the best in Kenya – indeed that’s why I picked them. Therefore, the experiences I had there can’t be generalised to the state of the entire Kenyan coast, where most fishing communities do not, at present, actively manage their own resources. However, it is nice to get a taste of what things can look like further down the road.
In the communities where we work in Madagascar, it wasn’t feasible to set up permanent no-take-zones from the start. Resource dependence among the Vezo fisherman of the south-west is more pronounced and unlike Kenyan fisherman, no Vezo have motorized boats which would allow them to fish outside the lagoons. Instead, our first efforts went into environmental education and temporary no-take-zones for octopus. These worked very well and starting in 2009, communities started creating permanent no-take-zones. The results of these zones are just beginning to be seen. I’m very much looking forward to when in a few years time, these areas get even better. Even if they do start to fill up with angry clown fish!