By Nuru Ahmed

Fishers steer long, vibrantly painted wooden canoes known as pirogues towards the sea in search of fish every day of their lives.

For the local fishers, most of whom toss their nets by hand from pirogues powered by small outboard motors, the rise of aquaculture has transformed their daily working conditions.

But due to the climate change crisis, fishers face many challenges in their daily fishing routines. Some drown and die due to high tides at sea, and others are attacked by sharks. Pirates from neighboring countries also invade their fishing space.

Even if you don’t live beside an ocean, chances are your existence is wedded to the sea. But, unfortunately, the climate crisis is slowly destroying aquatic foods systems, livelihoods and economies of the coastal communities and populations.

Hundreds of legal and illegal foreign fishing boats, including industrial trawlers and purse seiners, crisscross the waters off the Kenyan Coast, decimating the regions fish stocks and jeopardizing local fishers and livelihoods of the coastal people.

Human activities also affect the sea and ocean shores. For example, people drop plastics and garbage like diapers into the ocean. When fish eat such things, they die, and these plastics also affect the ocean’s ecosystem. Some rear their herds near the shores and these cattle eat up the mangroves thus affecting the ecosystem and biodiversity of the ocean.

Fishermen getting ready to sail

According to Muhammad Bazar, a fisherman at Mji wa Kale (Old Town) in Mombasa, “many things happen at the ocean like the use of ring net which is illegal and this really affects us as we cannot get any fish when the ring nets are placed in the ocean because it collects all fish whether mature for consumption or not.”

“The Old Town has turned into a dumpsite for Mombasa Island sewage. This really affects the ecosystem of the ocean as sewage destroys the sand, kills fish and also affects us the fishers who have no safe equipment for fishing. Our feet get affected because we have to step on the wastes to get into our boats to go fishing,” Bazar adds.

Nasib Hamza, a member of the Old Town’s Beach Management Unit (BMU), says, “Sometimes water dries up in the ocean that it is only land that you can see. There is a lot of plastics dumped in the ocean and this has made a lot of sea creatures like sharks and sea turtles to decrease in number.”

Plastics collected from the beach shores

According to Hassan Ali Hassan, 78, a resident of Malindi, the ocean is so rough these days. The winds are too much thus inconveniencing the daily routine of fishermen, forcing them to go deep into the ocean in search of fish. “These days nothing is got easily not like the past years where we could just get fish near the shores,” he adds.

“My two sons drowned in the ocean at Kipini, they had gone over night for fishing with four other men. As the tides were too high, their boat capsized, and four of them drowned.”

Muhammad Ali, the assistant chairperson of Pate Marine Community Conservancy (PMCC) corroborated this when he said many fishermen drowned in 2020 and early 2021 due to high tides.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), rise in sea and ocean level has been as a result of the warming temperatures. This has been largely attributed to melting of glaciers and polar ice sheets which are adding water to the oceans. Also, the volume of the ocean is expanding as the water warms.

According to the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) provisional report on the state of the global climate in 2021, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it absorbs more carbon dioxide.

The IPCC finds that ocean warming and acidification, loss of oxygen and changes in nutrient supplies, are already affecting the distribution and abundance of marine life in coastal areas, in the open ocean and at the sea floor.

This in turn poses a big risk to the livelihoods and economies of fishers who depend on the oceans for survival.

Fish catch from the ocean

According to Abdulhakim Bakari, a resident of Chundwa, an island in Lamu County, decades ago their grandfathers used to get plenty of fish from the ocean which would be enough for consumption and trade. However, that has changed as fish has become expensive.

Ismael Haroun, a 65-year-old resident of Wasini and also a fisherman, said, “People no longer care about the environment and what happens to it. Here where you see, the passage used to be full of water (the tides were so high), we used to sit on the rocks (Ngome). Water used to be near the shore till 5:00 am, and we used to get enough fish near the shores which we fed on with almost the whole Island”.

“Right now, fishermen go to the sea and come back tired without any fish during the day or night there is nothing to be got. Years ago, we used to place a net just near the shores, and we could get a lot of fish, but the way people live, and as technology continues to advance, things get so hard for us the coastal people.”

To meet the demand for the fish among coastal communities, some fishers resort to illegal fishing methods, not knowing it affects the biodiversity of the ocean.

The use of ring nets has paused a great challenge as the nets collect everything once put in the water. There is a type of fish that enters into a ring net that small scale fishers cannot get. Ring net fishing destroys corals, seaweeds, and other aquatic life like sea turtles and starfish among others, according to Abdallah Faris, a fisherman and a member of the Wasini Beach Management Unit.

They use ring nets to get plenty of fish; they want to earn more to take care of their families, not knowing this climate change crisis will affect all of us in the world, he said.

“Let us take an example, like here at our Island. Seawater is salty, and the climate has changed. As a result, the stones and rocks are eroded by salt. Maybe in a hundred years to come, these stones and rocks will all vanish, and our houses will be destroyed too,” Faris adds.

Fishing nets

In agreement, Salma Yusuf, a resident of Wasini Island says: “Annually, water comes up to the Island, putting our lives in danger because of human destruction of the earth and its surroundings. When the water rises to the land, it threatens our families because this is our home, and we have nowhere to go. If you can see, even some of our houses are destroyed due to the rise of salty water from the sea.”

This is not a new phenomenon, as the rising sea level has been reported to cause submergence of several islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Aminah Mahmoud, a member of Save Lamu says that if climate hazards like greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, a lot of fish will die in the ocean, aquatic lives will also reduce as well as the biodiversity and ecosystem of the sea.

She notes that though development is essential like in the case of the new Lamu port, they should not be at the cost of the environment.

Mahmoud urges communities in the coastal regions to engage in farming aquatic tolerant species with reduced feed dependence, building barriers and restoring coastal ecosystems to protect against storms while also reducing dependence on climate-sensitive aquatic feeds, sectors and vulnerability through investments that benefit human development irrespective of climate change.

Coral conservation

Khadija Abubakar, resides in Wasini and belongs to a conservation group that consists of seventy women. The group was started in 1979 by our grandmothers and mothers to conserve the corals and environment of Wasini Island, she says.

Together with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the group created a boardwalk for tourists to see the mangroves and the Natural coral garden that the youth used to exploit and get money from.

“The women group, with the support of village elders, now conserve the coral reefs and mangroves so that water does not reach our houses during high tides. In the coral garden, we have seaweeds which we eat as vegetables (for calcium). Also, it’s a breeding ground for crabs which we sell to hotels because of tourists who enjoy seafood,” Abubakar says.

She attests that with weather and climate-changing every day, there are a lot of dead corals and when it’s a season for high tides, water sometimes reaches their houses as the corals are dead and cannot survive the salty water.

“Since the boardwalk is built in the mangroves and during high tides water reaches it. It gets spoilt because seawater is salty and eats up the wood and the nails also rust and this is a big sign of climate change,” Abubakar said, adding that even the mangrove have been affected and the youth are forced to cut them down for sale.

She advises people against polluting the environment using diapers and plastics which exacerbate the impacts of climate change as they interfere with the survival of marine and aquatic lives.

According to Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II, though cutting greenhouse gas emissions will limit impacts on ocean ecosystems, reducing other pressures such as pollution will further help marine life deal with changes in their environment, while enabling a more resilient ocean.

“Policy frameworks, for example for fisheries management and marine-protected areas, offer opportunities for communities to adapt to changes and minimize risks for livelihoods,” he said.