By Paul Kimanzi

Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) Research Scientist Dr Nina Wambiji has emerged the second African woman to win the prestigious PEW Marine Fellowship, outshining many scientists across the globe.

Dr Wambiji will receive 150,000 USD (Ksh15 million) research grant to collect existing data and use a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to examine how fisheries are affecting populations of billfish species, with an emphasis on recreational and artisanal fisheries.

Dr Wambiji collects data as part of her work to strengthen fisheries data collection and reporting in the Western Indian Ocean

When she received the news, Dr Wambiji said that she did not expect the win, considering that there are many brilliant scientists around the world.

‘I am very delighted to receive this prestigious PEW Marine Fellowship. The support is very important to my institution, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) and the Western Indian Ocean region at large as we continue to expand research on understudied billfish species,’ she said.

She said that this three-year award has given her and the WIOMSA funded BILLFISH-WIO project an opportunity to collaborate regionally with diverse stakeholders in Somalia, Comoros, Seychelles and Mauritius given the highly migratory nature of billfish.

PEW announced her win yesterday alongside other seven marine scientists and conservationists from Japan, Indonesia, United States, Australia and China, as the 2020 recipients of the Pew Fellowship in marine conservation.

Focusing on Kenya, Somalia, Comoros, Seychelles and Mauritius, Dr Wambiji will work with stakeholders and national fisheries institutions to develop standardized data collection and reporting systems to facilitate improved assessments for billfish stocks.

Her project will increase awareness about the ecological and economic significance of these fish to local communities, governments, and nongovernmental organizations. The work seeks to strengthen fishers’ capacity to contribute to the efforts of national and regional fisheries institutions to develop an effective billfish conservation and management plan.

‘I am grateful to all those who have supported me in this nomination. This is more than I could have hoped for in my career as a marine scientist,’ said Dr Wambiji, who is also KMFRI Assistant Director in charge of Marine Fisheries.

KMFRI CEO Prof James Njiru speaks during UN Ocean Decade workshop in Nairobi in January 2020

In his congratulatory message, KMFRI CEO Prof James Njiru said, ‘Dr Nina, you did it at long last. You have done us proud. The candle of KMFRI shall be kept burning by you and me. Excellent work. Smart and hard work pays.’

The eight fellows will conduct research that will develop tools to strengthen ocean conservation, with the aim of among others, advancing sustainable aquaculture, improving fisheries management, protecting declining populations of sharks and other marine species, and fostering more effective restoration of coral reefs.

This work is increasingly critical to support the sustainable management of the world’s oceans, which face mounting threats from climate change, development, overfishing, and pollution.

How are the awards done?

Following a rigorous nomination and review process, a committee of marine scientists and conservationists from around the world recommends fellows for the award based on the strengths of their proposed projects, including the potential to advance protection of ocean environments.

Each of the selected individuals receives a three-year, $150,000 fellowship and access to a community of fellows and program alumni who share ideas, form collaborations, and gain professional skills and connections.

The other seven 2020 fellows include Ling Cao from China, Arthur Gleason from the United States, Hiroe Ishihara from Japan, Andrianus Sembiring from Indonesia,  Ana M.M. Sequeira, Asta Audzijonyte and Eric Gilman from Australia.

Dr James Kairo speaks during the UN Ocean Decade held in January 2020 in Nairobi

Still in 2019, PEW awarded a Kenyan Scientist; Dr James Kairo, who is KMFRI Chief Scientist, whose work sought to boost conservation of Kenya’s mangrove forests by supporting their inclusion in the country’s climate mitigation strategy based on their potential to store carbon.

Dr Kairo led a team that coordinated the development of the National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan for 2017-2027 period. The Plan identifies priority actions for improving mangrove management in the country.

Since 1996, the Pew Fellows Program has recognized 180 marine experts spread across 39 countries.