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Kenya port and ship-breaking projects threaten livelihoods and environment

  • Plans to build an industrial fishing port and a ship-breaking yard along the Wasini Channel off Kenya’s coast threaten the livelihoods of local communities who depend on fishing, seaweed farming, and ecotourism, residents say.
  • Underwater drilling carried out as part of surveys for the proposed port last November damaged coral reefs, while drilling for the ship-breaking yard destroyed seaweed crops.
  • Community members say they fear even more devastating impacts once the projects, which also include a smelting plant, get underway in earnest.

Feisal Abdalla spends his days on the sea, taking tourists on whale-watching, snorkeling and diving trips. He and his wife, Amina Sabel, also manage a string of ecotourism cottages along the shore of Wasini Island facing the Kenyan mainland across a kilometer-wide channel. Their own house is in the middle of the row, surrounded by indigenous coastal trees and the sound of birds and crickets, and waves crashing on the shoreline below.

But the serenity of Wasini was shattered last November. For close to a month, the sound of underwater drilling reverberated along the shore day and night as engineering teams carried out bathymetric surveys for a proposed fishing port across the channel at Shimoni. The drilling disturbed more than just the island’s tranquility. Villagers on either side of the Wasini Channel say it led to the bleaching of corals vital to local fisheries, and the loss of seaweed planted by farmers along the coastline here.

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The Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) plans to build an industrial fishing port at Shimoni. The authority is studying four possible sites at which to build a 150-meter-long (500-foot) jetty, and a 4,000-square-meter (43,000-square-foot) cold storage facility. The project will be funded by the government to the tune of $200 million and the contract has been awarded to China Communications Construction Company. The KPA says the port will provide opportunities for “large scale exploitation of the fish industry bolstered by a ready market and value addition which will spur the creation of special economic zones.”

To ensure large purse seiners and trawlers can use the port, parts of the channel will have to be dredged, according to the environmental impact assessment carried out by Envasses Environmental Consultants Limited, a Kenyan company. The EIA concedes that the dredging will potentially impact community conservation areas known as tengefu, meaning “set aside” in Kiswahili.

The authority promises to implement measures to minimize environmental damage. But locals say the port will have lasting, damaging effects on the environment, tourism, and artisanal fishing in the area.

Fishermen from Wasini have seen an increase in fish stocks since they began restoring coral reefs and planting seagrass. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

A community leading on conservation

Tengefu is a practice in which coastal communities set aside no-take zones, often around coral reefs that are breeding areas for fish. When fishing was all done from dhows and smaller boats, the corals were at very little risk. However, as bigger boats and different equipment arrived on the scene here in the early 1960s, the reefs were in danger from things like dragging anchors and blasting, also called dynamite fishing or fish bombing, a destructive and illegal type of fishing.

In 2012, the people of Shimoni, Wasini and other neighboring villages revived the traditional practice of declaring tengefus to both increase their catch and conserve the environment. They also began planting seagrass and restoring mangrove forests that had been cut down for construction.

Not far from Abdalla’s cottages is the Wasini Beach Management Unit office. Beach management units are found in every coastal community in Kenya; they are civic bodies under the Fisheries Act that bring fishermen, boat owners, fish traders, and others to manage fish landing stations and management of marine resources. Muhdin Musa, the chair of Wasini’s BMU, said its members also work to restore corals and plant seagrass in the Wasini tengefu. The BMU has also developed and managed diving and snorkeling sites.

“Since we started restoring corals and planting seagrass, we have seen an increase in fish stocks. Corals and seagrasses have provided breeding grounds for the fish.”

Yattan Patel works for Reefolution: “We collect corals that have broken off naturally and then attach them to a nursery with PVC pipes to what we call a tree. From the tree, the coral fragments hang free and therefore they get food from all directions and they grow a lot quicker,” he told Mongabay.

Map courtesy Reefolution Foundation.

Over the past five years, the project, developed as a partnership between these two villages and Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, has worked to restore corals in an area 3 km long by 100 m wide (1.9 miles by 330 feet). But Patel says he fears that when the second phase of construction of the port begins, extending a jetty, the corals will be endangered.

The port’s EIA proposes to transplant corals to replace damaged reefs. Abdalla says he’s concerned that the prescribed remedies won’t work. “They said that they would transplant corals but in reality, you can’t transplant corals and take them elsewhere. If it was possible to transplant corals then everyone would be doing it,” he said.

Patel agrees with Musa that the coral restoration has helped increase fish stocks; he has seen fishermen casting their nets in places they didn’t bother with before the coral restoration structures were set up under the surface.

Following the drilling last November, the beach management unit reported bleaching of some of the corals that they had restored. “We have corals in the diving site and at the snorkeling site. They drilled near the diving site and that is where the corals were affected,” Musa said. He adds he worries that if the relatively minor disruption caused by the drilling had an impact, then the dredging and other construction work for the port will be disastrous for the corals, and seagrass, the community’s livelihoods.

“The community of Wasini depends mainly on fishing and a little bit of ecotourism. Therefore, if the fishermen do not get fish, then everyone in Wasini is going to be affected as they all depend on fishing indirectly. Even the shopkeeper will be affected,” he said.

Abdalla and others who depend on tourism to earn a living say the fishing port will have negative effects on their business. “People come to the island so that they can get peace because here we have no cars, no bikes, no generators. But with a busy port, there will be a lot of noise. Engines revving all the time, traffic in and out and therefore tourists will not enjoy their stay as they will feel like they are in an industrial area,” he said.

Dredging of the channel is expected to harm community-managed conservation areas that have helped fish stocks in the Wasini Channel recover. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Ecological harm

About 7 km (4.3 mi) south of the Wasini Channel is Kisite Mpunguti Marine Park, managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Kisite Mpunguti boasts of “250 recorded fish species, 70 resident dolphins and over 140 catalogued individuals, sea turtles, whales, 56 genera of corals, sea grass and gastropods” according to the KWS. Compared to the marine park, the Wasini Channel doesn’t get much attention from researchers. But observations recorded on iNaturalist, the citizen-science initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, show nearly 700 species have been observed in the channel. These include more than 50 species listed as endangered by the IUCN. The presence of dolphins, humpback whales, and dozens of species of reef-dwelling fish are a large part of what makes Wasini an attractive tourist destination.

Abdalla says he worries that construction and operation of a busy port for industrial fishing vessels will damage the habitat for these species. “The quality of water will be polluted due to ship traffic and oil spills. It is well known that in places with a high traffic of ships there is no optimum control and even despite regulations oil spills still happen.”

Locals fear the impacts that construction of an industrial fishing port at Shimoni will have on fishing, ecotourism, and seaweed farming along the Wasini Channel. Map courtesy Reefolution Foundation.

Breaking ships — and seaweed farmers’ hearts

Fears that promises of mitigation plans and restoration of environmental damage will fall short are made even stronger by the experience of seaweed farmers a few kilometers east of Shimoni. In Kibuyuni village, the seaweed farmers were also affected by the bathymetric drilling in the Wasini Channel last year, which washed silt over their farms. They now face further problems as construction of a ship-breaking and smelting facility on the shore advances.

Seaweed farming has become a major economic activity in Kibuyuni and other villages in recent years. The farmers plant two types of seaweed: elkhorn (Kappaphycus alvarezii) and spinosum (Eucheuma denticulatum). After harvest, they dry and sell it to a buyer from neighboring Tanzania, who exports it. Seaweed is used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and cosmetic products. The farmers have recently started to manufacture soaps, shampoos and lotion on a small scale for sale in Kibuyuni and neighboring towns.

Fatuma Mohamed, the chair of the Kibuyuni Seaweed Farmers’ Cooperative Society, which has a membership of more than 200 farmers, said some of the society’s members lost seaweed and income when the drilling was done along the channel. The drilling for the bathymetric survey took close to a month as the surveyors moved along the length of the channel. After the drilling ceased, farmers planted for another season.

But in April another team started drilling again — this time even closer to their seaweed beds in Kibuyuni.

Standing in waist-deep water, with the waves swinging her back and forth, Mohamed told Mongabay the construction has snatched good fortune from their grip. “This year has been a challenging one for us seaweed farmers. We are just struggling but we don’t know what the end will be. Our main challenge is this developer who bought land here at Mwagoma near our seaweed farms. He bought land but we need to know if he bought the sea too. He started drilling the sea last month and destroyed our seaweed.”

Fatuma Mohamed says members of the Kibuyuni Seaweed Farmers’ Cooperative Society lost income when silt and pollution from driling damaged their harvests. They fear worse is to come. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Wasini Maritime Ltd. is constructing a jetty and a floating dry dock for a massive ship-breaking facility. It will have the capacity to break up three ships per month to recycle scrap metal, which will then be sent to a neighboring smelter to produce new steel. The project is expected to employ 2,500 people.

“We were already at a point [in the growing season] where we were going to earn well from it because this seaweed is what we depend on,” Mohamed said in May. “They drilled four boreholes and a mix of silt and oil were washed up to our seaweed destroying the crop. Even seagrasses and corals were also destroyed.”

Much like the KPA’s proposed fishing port, Wasini Maritime listed a raft of mitigation measures to protect the environment and livelihoods of the people of Kibuyuni and the larger Shimoni area. But with construction of the jetty just begun, Kibuyuni farmers have lost tons of seaweed to silt and pollution.

This is despite the fact that Wasini Maritime’s 2019 environmental impact assessment stated that the project would “avoid installation and operation of any of the structures such as floating dry dock and jetty within or at close proximity to areas used for seaweed farming at Kibuyuni.” It also said it would “ensure no oil spills from any of the ships and operational activities that could spread oil into the seaweed farming areas.”

Neither Wasini Maritime nor Kenya’s National Environmental Monitoring Agency (NEMA) responded to questions from Mongabay about compliance with the project’s EIA or harm already done to the seaweed farms.

Following repeated attempts to seek audience with Wasini Maritime, the farmers finally met with a company official at the end of May. They demanded compensation for their lost seaweed and a promise that future crops would not be destroyed. The official told them he would report back upon hearing from the directors. The farmers are still waiting.

Seaweed farmers in Wasini say that this year has been challenging for them due to the drilling for the port construction. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Back on Wasini Island, residents as well as a group of tour boat operators also got no response to letters of protest sent to NEMA. Repeated efforts by Mongabay to get comment from NEMA or the Kenya Port Authority also went unanswered.

Amina Sabel, concerned for the future of the tourist cottages she manages with her husband, started an online petition to challenge the construction. Close to 2,000 people have signed so far. “It was a terrible shock for me when the environmental assessment came, which is a terrible piece of paper, and through which the community got aware of what is at risk here,” she said. “The destruction of our environment, our peace, our culture, our finances because our tourism will be dead, fishing will be dead, everything as we know it will be gone and alternatives are actually not here. So, it is very depressing for me.”

Banner image: Fisherman unloads fish at Wasini. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

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