Kenya Seascape

Kenya Seascape Photo
©Tim McClanahan

Kenya’s marine ecosystems range from mangroves and coastal wetlands to lagoons, fringing coral reefs, and ocean. This East African country has established six national reserves specifically to protect its marine environments. In one of the southern reserves, 45 varieties of coral have been identified, including staghorn, brain, mushroom, and pencil corals. More than 250 species of fish, as well as dolphins and four species of sea turtles, share this protected area.

Coastal peoples in Kenya depend deeply upon marine and coastal ecosystems and their resources. These ecosystems—including coral reefs, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds are particularly vulnerable to demage due to overexploitation, destructive utilization, and the impacts of climate change.

Fast Facts

  • There are 33 national parks and reserves in Kenya; of these, 6 are marine and coastal.
  • Nearly the entire Kenya coastline is protected by a fringing reef. Herbivorous fish along this reef help keep the ecosystem in balance by grazing on algae, enabling the corals to flourish.
  • New Beach Management Unit (BMU) regulations recently introduced along the Kenyan coast will help establish community-managed closed areas called “Tengefu.” Research has shown that where closed areas exist, fish are larger and fetch higher prices.
  • Currently there are approximately 12,000 fishers on the Kenyan coast and more than 80 percent are artisanal. Most households—or about 25,000 to 56,000 people—at the key landing beaches depend on fishing for income and food security.


The greatest threats to the country’s coastal seascape are unsustainable levels of fishing and the impacts of global climate change, both of which have wrought havoc on coral reefs throughout the Indian Ocean. Many coral species react to prolonged, unusually high temperatures at the water’s surface by discharging the beneficial algae that live within their tissues, causing a “bleaching” reaction. These bleaching events, which may become more frequent with a change in climate, can be devastating to reefs.

In addition, economic growth has eroded cultural restrictions on fishing, leading to overharvest of many species. The consequences of these practices and increased pressure due to the rising coastal population will increasingly degrade those ecosystems that are less resilient.

WCS Responds

WCS researchers are studying how human communities living adjacent to reefs in southern Kenya adapt to the impacts of climate change. Our marine scientists believe that some of the southern coral reefs are demonstrating unusual resiliency. These “super reefs” may be more adaptable to withstand rising ocean temperatures brought on by global climate change if their fisheries resources are properly managed.

WCS has carried out research on fishing and impacts on reefs with a view to developing management interventions that protect both coastal ecosystems and local livelihoods. During an annual Fishers Forum, our researchers identify issues with fishers, conduct studies, discuss the findings, and suggest management interventions.

WCS efforts have led to a ban on the southern coast of beach seines, a type of particularly harmful net which surrounds all fish in an area, rather than targeting a specific catch. As a direct result, destructive fishing pressure has eased up, fish catches have rebounded, and fisher earnings have increased.

We are also investigating other interventions to supplement gear management in order to increase benefits to both the environment and local fishers.

From the Newsroom

Building Better Fish TrapsOctober 8, 2013

New fish traps designed by researchers from WCS and the Kenyan Marine and Fisheries Research Institute keep big fish in and let non-target fish out.

Helping Corals Survive a Changing ClimateApril 22, 2013

Coral reef fisheries expert Dr. Tim McClanahan highlights the resilience of coral reefs and the conservation efforts that will help them adapt to changing conditions.

WCS Wins Grand Prize for Fisheries ProjectJanuary 10, 2012

A WCS marine project to reduce bycatch in Kenya and Curacao through a low-cost, low-tech fish trap design takes the top honor in a contest sponsored by Rare, in partnership with National Geographic.

Fishing Communities Put the Heat on Climate Change TalksDecember 8, 2011

As global leaders convene in Durban, South Africa to tackle climate change, WCS coral reef fisheries expert Dr. Tim McClanahan and his colleague Dr. Joshua Cinner urge action on behalf of the world’s fishing communities dependent upon the increasingly threatened bounty of warming tropical seas.

A Countdown to Coral CollapseSeptember 28, 2011

A new study identifies a better way to determine if coral ecosystems are in danger of collapse.


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