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An alarming number of sea turtles have died over the past year in Marereni, on the central Kenyan coast, raising concerns among conservationists, researchers, and the local community that the animals could soon be eliminated from the region. Equally distressing are the all-too-preventable causes of their decline.
According to the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), unlawful fishing activities and poaching are responsible for more than 80 percent of the sea turtle deaths in the city, amounting to more than 200 turtles.
“We’re suspecting that trawler operators could be coming closer to the shores, hence endangering marine life,” says Thomas Mkare, a biologist at KMFRI, adding that the number of turtle deaths is just too high. “We could lose them soon,” he says.
Of the seven sea turtle species, five are found in Kenya, making it a hotspot for global sea turtle research.
Mkare says that because of the COVID-19 pandemic there were no observers monitoring fishing activity. This gave trawler operators an opportunity to come closer to shore, which is where the majority of juvenile sea turtles are found.
He says fishers working illegally set their gear in seagrass beds, the feeding grounds for sea turtles. The juvenile turtles become entangled in the gear and suffocate. Mkare adds that since the emergence of the global pandemic, most of the trawlers have been operating without turtle excluder devices, which is contributing to more fatalities.
Though illegal fishing has affected all five of the sea turtle species found in Kenya, green sea turtles have been the hardest hit, accounting for almost 50 percent of the deaths.
But illegal fishing is only part of the problem. Poaching has been responsible for roughly 20 percent of the deaths—a reality exposed by sea turtle intestines found strewn on the beaches. Local fishermen and traders have been caught selling turtle meat on the black market. Dead turtles have also been found hidden in nearby mangrove forests.
“We found lots of turtles dead along the shorelines. Some we’re able to identify their species, but the majority we can’t as their shells are totally dismantled beyond recognition,” says Sammy Safari, a community liaison with the Kenya-based nonprofit Local Ocean Conservation.
Safari, who won the Whitley Fund for Nature’s Whitley Award in 2021 for his work in marine protection, says that sea turtles dying on the Kenyan coast is not a new problem—but what is new is the scale of the deaths.
Hussein Katana, an elder from a local Jabana coastal community that has traditionally used sea turtle meat and oil for cultural purposes, says illegal fishing is like terrorism and must be condemned.
As for how to curtail the rash of deaths, Mkare says fisheries observers need to be redeployed on trawlers, and authorities need to ensure the use of turtle excluder devices. There is also a need to establish a marine protected area to safeguard the corals and seagrasses near Marereni, Mkare says—preferably one that is managed locally.