East Africa reef initiative launched

Posted: 30 July 2002

A pioneering initiative, aimed at boosting the fortunes of East Africa's coral reefs and their globally important wildlife, has been announced by researchers at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Several reefs in the region, located in Kenya, the Seychelles and Madagascar, have been chosen for development into "centres of excellence" for reef management.

Under a four year programme, it is hoped to transform these reefs into beacons of good practice with the lessons learnt on protecting and managing them for the benefit of local people, wildlife and tourists exported to other threatened reefs in the region.

The initiative in East Africa is part of a global project called the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN). The network has been promised US$10 million from the United Nations Foundation in Washington, to carry out the vital work, on the understanding that UNEP will raise a further $5 million from other sources.

East Africa's reefs, in common with reefs around the world, are facing a heavy burden of threats. These have been triggered by a boom in coastal development and marine-based activities over the past three decades along the region's 11,000 kilometres of coast which is home to some 35 million people.

Human impacts

Arthur Dahl, Director of UNEP's Coral Reef Unit, said: "In many ways coral reefs are very resilient. These ancient ecosystems have survived everything from tropical cyclones to rising and falling sea levels. But they are now proving to be very sensitive to certain kinds of human impacts, particularly over recent years."

Mr Dahl said topping the pollution impacts were dynamite fishing, over-fishing of these vital nursery grounds, thoughtless actions by boat owners dropping anchor on reefs and breaking them up.

Other problems include the plundering of corals by some sections of the tourist industry as curios and souvenirs along with fertilizer, sewage and soil run off from the land.

Climate change

Meanwhile rising surface sea temperatures, such as those witnessed during the El Niño event of three years ago, are aggravating the decline of coral reefs. During that event up to 70 per cent of Kenya's corals were bleached and damaged.

El Niño, a natural climatic cycle in the Pacific Ocean which can raise sea temperatures, once came round every 10 to 15 years. But there is growing scientific evidence that it is returning far more frequently with some researchers linking this to global warming.

Mr Dahl said: "Corals have evolved to grow close to their upper, safe, temperature limit because they are more productive, and they have never had to go beyond that. The kind of temperatures seen in 1998 are pushing them beyond that safe limit".

He said, "reducing carbon dioxide, the key pollutant linked with climate change, would help coral reefs in other ways. They produce their skeletons by precipitating limestone from bicarbonate in the water. Increases in carbon dioxide in the water interfere with this reef building process making it harder for corals to bounce back," said Mr Dahl.

Tension over fisheries

Agneta Nilsson, UNEP's project co-ordinator for ICRAN, said in East Africa there were other tensions which were making it difficult to effectively conserve reefs.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been set up around many important reefs in the region where fishing by local, traditional, fishermen has been banned. But in some places this has created conflict between reef management staff and the local fishermen, who have been squeezed into less rich fishing grounds.

This has been aggravated by the influx of big trawlers and factory fishing vessels from outside the region, such as the European Union, whose vessels operate just beyond the reefs and the marine parks.

Dixon Waruinge, coastal zone manager at UNEP, said East Africa's rich reefs were also under pressure from the illegal collection of tropical fish for the world-wide aquaria trade.

Demonstration sites

Under the ICRAN initiative, four reef systems in the region are being targeted as demonstration sites where funds, expertise and equipment will be deployed to bring them up to the status of "centres of excellence".

These are the St Anne Marine Park and the Cousin Island Marine Protected Areas in the Seychelles. St Anne has zoned areas of the reef into ones for underwater diving and protected zones for reefs and other important ecosystems including sea grasses and turtle nesting beaches. There are also general use zones for picnics, boating and swimming.

The others in the region are the Nosy Atafana Marine Park on the province of Toamasina, north east Madagascar, which is famous for its marine turtles and migrating and calving Humpback whales, and the Malindi-Watamu Marine National Parks in Kenya.

Lessons learnt at these sites may be used to boost the fortunes of the Dar es Salaam Marine Reserve system in Tanzania.

Partnership vital

Ms Nilsson said the essence of the ICRAN effort was partnership. The network includes UNEP and its Regional Seas Programmes, UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the World Fish Center, the World Resources Institute, the International Coral Reef Initiative Secretariat, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the Coral Reef Alliance and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

Among the many aims of the initiative is training for local people so they can set up small businesses to supplement incomes that may be reduced as a result of better protection of reefs, their fisheries and wildlife.

"This aspect of the initiative is vital. Unless local people support reef protection and derive benefits from doing this, it will be hard to make coral reef conservation work," said Ms Nilsson.

ICRAN estimates that the four-year action phase of the project will cost US$45 million.

Sources: UNEP and ICRAN.

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International Coral Reef Initiative Executive Secretariat