The call came on a late afternoon in November 2002. Mzee Dickson Juma Gereza, a veteran fisherman at Kuruwitu village, 20 kilometers north of Mombasa city along the Kenyan Coast, was to deliver seven kilograms of fish to a client hosting a party for a group of visiting tourists.
He took his fishing spear and a basket and went off to the community’s traditional fishing grounds. The afternoon fishing expedition turned out to be a disaster. Hours of diving into the deep ocean waters searching for fish yielded the smallest catch in his life as a fisherman.
“I barely managed to get fish catch weighing three kilograms. My client accused me of ruining his party,” recalls Mzee Gereza.
He was not alone. Over the years, dozens of fishermen in Kuruwitu village had detected a drastic decline in their daily catch. The reduction in fish population posed an unprecedented crisis to this fishing community where almost everyone relies on fishing as their main source of income.
Several crisis meetings were held to tackle this problem.
What resulted was the formation of the Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association (KCWA) in 2005. KCWA, a community group with a membership of over 200, would spearhead all activities aimed at protecting the ocean along the beach and preserving marine life.
It banned fishing within 30 hectares of the marine zone marked by a reef that separated the shallow waters and the deep ocean. The group also outlawed harvesting of ornamental corals. Members of KCWA were to police the beach and ensure the laws were enforced.
Almost 15 years after KCWA was established, Kuruwitu Beach has become a model of how communities living along endangered marine zones can be involved in the protection and conservation of marine environments, and, in return reap, the benefits of the blue economy.
Mzee Gereza, who is also KCWA's project manager, dubs the project a phenomenal success. Data from the World Conservation Society show that the fish population in the Marine Protected Area is now booming, with fish biomass estimated to grow by a whopping 400 percent.
The spillover effect of the fish boom at Kuruwitu is also being felt in adjacent fishing grounds managed by other Beach Management Units (BMU), with fishermen there reporting an increase in catch.
And the fields of seagrass used by fish to lay their eggs are regenerating while endangered green turtles have returned to nest in the sandy beaches as they used to decades ago.
“We learnt our lessons," said Mzee Gereza. "Now we take personal responsibility and take care of our beach because it sustains us."
These community efforts have seen Kuruwitu become the first community-owned marine park in Kenya.
Mr. Katana Ngara, a member of KCWA, says the association is committed to ensuring that the ocean life is protected in all six fish-landing sites that fall under the association's domain. The sites include Bureni, Kinuni, Vipingo, Mwanamia, Kijangwani and Kuruwitu.
Different fish species have flooded the rehabilitated zones. They include parrotfish, sturgeons, rabbitfish, coral snappers, emperor fish, porcupine and boxfish. The community is also engaged in marine tourism for domestic and foreign visitors, offering dhow rides, dolphin and whale watching, snorkeling and diving among the coral reefs.
The benefits have flowed in. KCWA has been invited to international conferences including the World Conservation Congress in South Korea and Madagascar. In 2017, KCWA received the prestigious international Equator Prize for its conservation efforts.
To date, 26 other conservation groups in communities neighboring the ocean have visited Kuruwitu to study its model of community-based marine conservation. The groups are expected to replicate the model in their fishing areas.
Some of them are local, others come from as far up the coast as Lamu, while others come from Tanzania, Djibouti and Mozambique.
“They want to know how they can adopt what we are doing here to benefit themselves,” Ngara said.
Arthur Tuda, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Assistant Director for Marine Protected Area, says community involvement in marine conservation had multiple benefits. Apart from ensuring regeneration of ocean life in degraded areas, he says such activities empower the local communities to do things such as keep the beaches clean and attractive.
“They are primarily the users of this marine resource," he said. "Taking care of it means it will take care of them."
The KCWA is supported by Ocean Adventures, a coast-based organization focused on conserving diversity along the Kenyan coast. Mr. Des Bowden, an official with Ocean Adventure, says the group has introduced the growing of coral nurseries to replanting in zones where coral degradation has been reported. He adds that fishing in areas with coral is very controlled to avoid destroying those ecosystems.
He says the community members also fiercely protect their hunting grounds from illegal trawlers and fishermen from other areas who are attracted to the landing sites by the overabundance of fish there.
“They monitor the waters and chase off boats and trawlers that come into this area,” Bowden said. During regular clean-ups of the beach, the ocean debris that washes ashore and is collected is recycled into useful products, he adds.
KWCA’s approach to environmental protection is also seen as a solution that can boost food security and create employment for hundreds of locals, says Bowden, who suggests that the government adopt such models to boost food security for thousands of people living in areas bordering oceans.
Mzee Gereza notes that since KCWA was formed there is adequate fish for domestic consumption. The fishermen are also getting enough catch to sell.
“We are better off than we were but we expect to be better. If we conserve our marine environment, we will never go hungry,” he says.
KCWA is also viewed as an example of how the blue economy model Kenya aims to build works in practice. In 2018, Kenya hosted the first-ever blue economy conference, where sustainable utilization of oceans and other marine bodies was touted as an economic empowerment route.
Amongst other topics, the conference explored ways in which local communities bordering marine zones can be empowered to exploit oceanic resources sustainably. Among the suggestions was controlled fishing, avoiding overexploitation of marine resources and raising public awareness in fishing communities on how to conserve their environment.
Reporting for this story was supported by a workshop held 18-22 November by EJN's East Africa Wildlife Journalism project.