Watamu Marine Association Aims for Cetacean Safeguards on Kenyan Coast

Disconcertingly, some of these species are believed to be in steady decline in the Western Indian Ocean, facing significant threats such as becoming bycatch in fishing gear, loss of habitat, overfishing, unregulated dolphin/ whale watching activities and, in recent years, the oil and gas industry. Photo by Edita Magileviciute, GVI.The Watamu Marine Association (WMA) was established in 2007 in Kenya in order to bring together members from the community, tourism, and environmental sectors in the coastal resort town of Watamu to promote community development and empowerment, and to advocate for the protection and preservation of Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve. The following article by WMA’s Jane Spilsbury and others discusses some of the threats to Kenya’s marine mammals and reports on WMA’s efforts, through the Kenya Marine Mammal Network (KMMN), to establish baseline data to facilitate conservation efforts.

Relatively little is known about marine mammal species inhabiting Kenya’s inshore and coastal waters. Disconcertingly, some of these species are believed to be in steady decline in the Western Indian Ocean, facing significant threats such as becoming bycatch in fishing gear, loss of habitat, overfishing, unregulated dolphin/whale watching activities and, in recent years, the oil and gas industry.

For these reasons, there is an urgent need to gain a more comprehensive understanding and data set for these species. As no research has previously been conducted for the north coast region of Kenya, the Watamu Marine Association started studying marine mammals in 2010 for the first time in Malindi Marine National Park and Watamu Marine National Reserve, in order to collect baseline data about species, distribution and abundance. WMA partnered with Global Vision International (GVI), a marine mammal research organization that has been working on the Kenyan south coast, in Kisite Mpunguti Marine Park, since 2006. The two groups have recorded more than 1,300 sightings from four different cetacean species: Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, spinner dolphin, and humpback whale.

These data have given us a greater understanding of the animals’ distribution and movement, and have made it possible to estimate the local population size of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, the most common coastal dolphin. The populations were estimated through the creation of photo-identification catalogs, giving a total number so far of 81 animals in the Watamu Reserve and 80 individuals in Kisite Park. Three individuals have been identified as traveling over 140 kilometers between the two protected areas.

Threats to Kenyan Marine Mammals

Bycatch · Accidental capture in fishing gear is probably the most direct threat for Kenyan marine mammals, and reports indicate that an increasing number of marine mammals are being caught as bycatch in the Western Indian Ocean region. Studies from nearby Zanzibar have shown the impact of this problem on the local dolphin populations, with 213 individuals reported entangled in artisanal gillnets (driftnets and bottom-set) from 2000 to 2008. With more than 10,000 fishermen along the Kenya coast and a significant percentage of them using gillnets, this highlights the need for increased research on fishing gear and how it may be impacting local marine mammal populations, as well as the need to conduct awareness programs for fishermen on cetacean conservation.

Oil and gas exploration · A more recent potential threat has come from the dramatic increase in offshore oil and gas exploration in Kenya since 2010, which is now intensifying. The use of seismic survey vessels, air guns, drilling, and explosive blasts can disrupt the behavior of marine mammals. Human-generated ocean noise, such as that from military active sonar as well as from oil and gas exploration and extraction, has been correlated with a number of stranding deaths of cetaceans. It is also widely accepted that such noise may force marine mammals away from resident areas or change significant biological behaviors, including from preferred migratory routes. To date, no unusual numbers of strandings or obvious changes in migratory or other behaviors have been recorded along the Kenyan coast, but research must continue to fully assess the possible long term effects from oil and gas activities on dolphins and whales and the fish stocks upon which they rely.

Overfishing · WMA research has revealed that the commercial-scale ring net fishery that has been operating in the Watamu Reserve since 2008 has caused the relocation of resident bottlenose dolphin populations from their regular feeding grounds over the past two years. This is most likely due to a combination of disturbance and overfishing, forcing the dolphins to search for fish (their main food source) elsewhere.

Unregulated and intrusive dolphin watching practices · Dolphin watching is an increasingly popular form of ecotourism, becoming economically important to local communities in developing countries. When done irresponsibly, such activities can disturb natural behaviors like breeding and feeding, and threaten young calves if separated from their mothers. In Watamu, community boat operators, hotels, and other tour operators offer dolphin watching excursions. However, until recently, internationally accepted guidelines have not been in place or enforced. To ensure the welfare of dolphins, both WMA and GVI, working with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), have created Good Dolphin Watching Guidelines. Our aim is to promote dolphin watching conducted in accordance with these guidelines as an ecotourism activity that can economically benefit the local community and also protect dolphins from human harassment and disturbance.

Public Awareness and the Need for a National Conservation Strategy

In May 2011, WMA and GVI established the Kenya Marine Mammal Network, which partners with the KWS and the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) to provide the first consistent data—collected by sport fishing vessels, diving clubs, artisanal fishers, and non-governmental organizations—on occurrence and abundance of marine mammals along the Kenyan coast. It is also anticipated that this project will help to define areas of “high importance” for marine mammals, which will improve our understanding of these species in the region and do so on a broader temporal scale. More than 300 sightings were reported to KMMN between October 2011 and September 2012, with the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin being the species most frequently encountered.

Reports of humpback whales in Kenyan waters skyrocketed in 2012, with 167 individual sightings documented through the end of November to WMA alone. East African humpback whales are specifically from the Southwest Indian Ocean subpopulation, an estimated 35,000 animals who live in the Southern Hemisphere and are genetically distinct from other humpback whale populations.

KMMN has gathered important scientific information and baseline data and put measures in place to protect dolphins and whales. However, questions remain concerning the future status and welfare of Kenya’s dolphins and whales. As with most wildlife conservation and welfare matters, the issues are human ones and it is up to us to ensure that these magnificent creatures and their environment are given adequate protection, for them to survive and for us to share and enjoy.

The Authors

Jane Spilsbury is a former lawyer from the UK and is now an advisor for WMA. She specializes in dolphin and whale identification photography and has helped develop the WMA Dolphin Research, Conservation and Ecotourism Project, which is funded by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife.

Steve Trott is a marine zoologist and Chairman of WMA, an association of 30 groups and organizations from the community, tourism and conservation sectors in Watamu. WMA runs sustainable tourism and ecotourism projects, community waste management and recycling projects, and marine conservation and research projects.

Sergi Pérez is a marine biologist conducting his Ph.D. on the ecology of the bottlenose dolphin around Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Protected Area and has been involved with GVI since 2008.

Zeno Wijtten is a wildlife biologist, author of several publications on crocodilians and primates, and the director of GVI South Coast. GVI South Coast works with KWS, conducting marine and terrestrial research and supporting community-led integrated conservation.