Kenya's Waters

Glowing Fish Photo
Seeming to glow within the clear waters off Kenya's coast, a tripletail wrasse swims amongst one of the country's many reefs.
©T. McClanahan
School of Fish Photo
Running alongside nearly the entire country, a fringing reef helps protect Kenya's coast.
©R. Graham
Scuba Diver Photo
WCS scientist Tim McClanahan diving off the Kenyan coast.
©R. Graham

Kenya, which straddles the equator between the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria, may be better known for its terrestrial wildlife species, but the East African country also encompasses some of the continent’s most important marine environments. Along its coastline are “super reefs” that scientists now think may be more adaptable to withstand rising ocean temperatures brought on by global climate change if their fisheries resources are properly managed. Kenya’s marine ecosystems range from mangroves and coastal wetlands to lagoons, coral reefs and open ocean; the country has six national reserves designed specifically to protect its marine environments.

Fast Facts

  • The green turtle, hawksbill turtle, and olive ridley are the most commonly encountered sea turtles in Kenya.
  • The Kenyan coastline is protected by a fringing reef that runs nearly its entire length.
  • Coral reefs are composed of tiny creatures that live in colonies in mostly tropical and subtropical waters.
  • During prolonged, unusually high surface temperatures, many coral species discharge the beneficial algae that live within the tissues and “bleach,” leaving the reefs white and sickly. Reefs living in environments with stable but higher temperatures are more susceptible to fatal bleaching.


Increased development along the coastline can generate runoff, impact water flows, and cause sedimentation in Kenya’s coastal waters. But the greatest threats to the country’s marine ecosystems are unsustainable levels of fishing and the impacts of global climate change, both of which have wrought havoc on the Indian Ocean’s coral reefs. Economically poor communities that rely heavily upon marine resources tend to use traditional, low-tech fishing methods. When a community becomes wealthier, it often uses more motorized fishing vessels and sophisticated fishing gear, which are more destructive, even if the community relies less on fishing for subsistence. Economic growth can also erode cultural restrictions on overfishing, which has happened in Kenya.

WCS Responds

WCS researchers are determining how human communities living adjacent to reefs in southern Kenya adapt to the impacts of climate change. When reefs die off, their valuable fish stocks disappear and tourism dollars dry up. WCS is working to improve coral reef fishery management to relieve stress on these ecosystems. Ultimately, conservationists hope to help provide wider economic opportunities to local communities dependent on reef fishing.

In addition, WCS researchers are finding ways to help reduce the negative impacts of climate change and potentially increase the resilience of marine ecosystems by managing fishing gear. Different types of equipment used by artisanal fishers target fish with various effects on the coral reef ecosystem. At our study sites in Kenya, WCS has observed that traps and spear guns are used to harvest many fish populations that are key to the recovery of corals that have “bleached” as a result of warming surface waters. For example, herbivorous fish that graze on algae help keep the ecosystem in balance, enabling corals to flourish. When these fish disappear from the waters, the reefs become significantly more prone to the detrimental effects of climate change. Conservationists hope that by selectively banning or restricting certain fishing gear that take too great a toll on crucial reef fish, they can develop a powerful tool to combat the detrimental effects of climate change.

WCS scientists studying the reefs in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s east coast have found that corals with the best chances of survival live in seas with wide-ranging seasonal temperatures. These hardier reefs tend to be located in the “shadow” of islands, protected from the oceanic currents that keep temperatures stable in more fragile reef ecosystems. Our scientists are now mapping the global stress on corals in the Indo-Pacific Ocean.

From the Newsroom

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 Map for Reef ReliefAugust 12, 2011

WCS marine scientists provide a color code for coral conservation by mapping out the stress loads of the world's reefs.

For Dolphins, Chemistry Is in the WaterMarch 25, 2011

‘Invisible’ barriers within the western Indian Ocean are keeping populations of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins from intermingling. New research advises conservation plans to take environmental conditions such as currents into consideration.


~/media/Images/wcs org/forms/please donate to help conservation.png
Stay in touch with WCS and receive the latest news.

Saving Wild Places