Perilous Times for the Squids of Kenya (WIO-RISE)

Alan Anderson

Francis Murage Mwonjoria’s academic career as a biologist began auspiciously and rapidly. He earned a BSc in botany and zoology from the University of Nairobi, followed by an MSc in hydrobiology. For his master’s degree, he joined a research project that was both interesting and valuable: measuring the results of efforts to restore mangrove ecosystems to good health. He and his team chose the mangrove region of Gazi Bay, near Mombasa, which has suffered from deforestation and water pollution for many years. The loss of trees had become a considerable threat to the local population, which both harvested the wood and depended on the health of the forests at the same time. The deforestation had other negative effects, including decreased availability of wood, fish, and prawns; lower revenues paid to the government in royalties and tourist fees; an increase in coastal erosion; and the eventual reduction of sea grasses and coral reefs.

Efforts to replant the mangrove forests by hand had begun in the 1990s, but little was known about how effective these efforts were. To answer this question, Francis’ team set out to evaluate and compare three types of environments: (1) undisturbed forests, (2) forests that had been degraded, and (3) forests that had been degraded and replanted over a period of 10 years.

“My question was,” he said, “now that we’ve replanted them, is the ecosystem recovering? What we found was good recovery when reforested. It was not complete, but very exciting. When you look at the animals from all of these environments, one, two, and three, you can see everything coming back: nematodes, copepods, then the fish.”

It was not so easy, however, to measure the fish populations. The biologists did use the traditional fish traps, or malema, which are wooden structures that allow fish to enter and then prevent them from leaving. But it was very hard with this technique to catch statistically useful samples. So Francis and the others used an ad hoc system of “stick nets,” which was not traditional.

“We would bury a net in a trench,” he said, “and then six of us would station ourselves all around the net, each holding a stick. When enough fish came over the net someone would yell ‘One, two, three’ and we would all pull up on our sticks and bring the net up under the fish. This was very hard, and we had to do a lot of it by swimming. Then we still couldn’t count the fish, so we had to leave the net up on the sticks until the tide went out.”

After this interesting project, his career all but came to a halt. He faced the same quandary as most of his RISE colleagues: finding the support to continue working toward a PhD. He did keep busy, including his duties as one of the chief fisheries officers of Kenya, and persisted in his efforts to land some kind of scholarship.

“It’s very hard,” he recalled, shaking his head. “We had no support in Nairobi. I spent ten years applying for scholarships everywhere: DAAD, SIDA, JICA. Every year the chances became less, because the foundations give preference to recent graduates. I heard about RISE in Nairobi, and everyone was surprised when I got the scholarship. Even my seniors at the Ministry of Fisheries can’t find support for research. You struggle, you just struggle to get research money. So this was like a dream. I feel very good.”

For his RISE work he will change gears to investigate the steady decline in the near-shore squid population in Kenya. This will be done at the Institute for Marine Sciences in Zanzibar, where faculty members have ample expertise to supervise his work. “My question is simple,” he said: “Why is it going down? This is important because squid meat is very popular locally and for export. In fact, it costs more than fin fish.” Part of the reason for its popularity in Kenya, he said, is its unfortunate reputation as an aphrodisiac; it is also said to help nursing mothers produce more milk.

While overfishing is clearly a threat, this common species, the bigfin reef squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana), has been reported in the literature to decline with rising sea temperatures. Francis has begun his investigation here, using surface data from the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He will also collect data from fishermen in the jig fishery, who search for squid at night using lights, and from the Ministry of Fisheries. Finally, he will survey the records of companies that use ships to troll for prawns, lobster, and squid, including East African Seafoods, Basta and Sons, and Trans-African Fisheries. He already has the title of his study, if not the results: “A Survey of the Squid Fishery of Kenyan Coastal Waters, With Emphasis on the Biology and Ecology of the Bigfin Reef Squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana).”

“I think it is mostly global warming,” he hypothesized. “But we have many questions. The squid is susceptible to degradation of the environment, especially deforestation. El Nino has caused a lot of rain, soil runoff, and coral reef die-off. I must also look at the southeast monsoon, which can bring lots of changes in the sea from spring to September. When current velocities are very strong, they can affect the reproduction of the squid. So there may be more than one cause.”