The environmental crisis on Kenya’s coast and why we need to solve it


Around the world, countries are facing some of the greatest environmental challenges of the past millennia. Raging fires in the brazilian amazon to toxic air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. As humanity moves forward into the 21st century, we are reaching an unprecedented moment of environmental degradation. This can be seen by the headlines that reach our smartphones and computers daily. However, one of the most ignored crises has the potential to be one of the most damaging.

Just off the beautiful coast of Kenya lies a largely unreported crisis, the massive degradation of Kenya’s seagrass ecosystem. According to a report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, between 1986 and 2016, Kenya has lost about 21% of its seagrass covers in its oceans. By disturbing the sediments on the seabed, the seagrasses suffocate and die. Sediment disturbance comes from both overgrazing by sea urchins and human trampling of grasses. The issue of sea urchin-driven overgrazing is a problem that stems directly from The tragedy of the commons, a situation in which individuals exploit a shared resource to the extent that demand exceeds supply. Overfishing of parrotfish (which are natural predators of sea urchins) has resulted in a crushing spike in the sea urchin population. For this reason, uncontrolled numbers of sea urchins have now overgrazed many parts of the western Indian Ocean. This devastating loss of seagrass has severely damaged Kenya’s natural ecosystem and now threatens to drain much of the coastal community’s food supply.

Many coastal families residing in Kenya depend on artisanal fishing for access to food. Without seagrass, seagrass rabbitfish and parrotfish are threatened in Kenyan waters. This disruption will almost certainly destroy the livelihoods of countless Kenyans. It is also expected to threaten a number of endangered species off the coast of Kenya, including sea turtles, seahorses and dugongs. Just as the seagrass ecosystems in Kenya face imminent danger, so does the environmental stability of the world. Acting as efficient carbon sinks, seagrass ecosystems have the ability to act as a critical resource in the fight against climate change. Despite this potential, seagrass ecosystems have been largely neglected. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, new data suggest that only 26% of the herbaria identified are part of the world’s marine protected areas. Industrial runoff, dredging, unregulated mass fishing and climate change have all played a key role in the destruction nearly 30% of the known territory of seagrass beds global.

In order to solve this crisis, the world must launch more efforts to preserve seagrass beds. A successful preservation method has been discovered by the Kenya Fisheries and Research Institute, which has initiated seagrass regrowth trials. These trials involved planting seagrass seedlings in holes punched inside large bags on the ocean floor. A complementary study by the Queensland University of Technology in 2017, in the Moreton Bay area, indicated that with dredging operations taking place during the autumn season, cause much less damage to seagrass beds than operations initiated at other times of the year.

Efforts to preserve seagrass beds in the Western Indian Ocean offer a distinct avenue to protect Kenyan coastal communities and the natural world. Reaching that moment will require remarkable scientific ingenuity and political pragmatism.

The days of waiting on the sidelines are long gone. The death of seagrass beds in the Western Indian Ocean poses a serious threat to biodiversity, coastal livelihoods, reduced carbon emissions and economic mobility. It is for these reasons that international and individual action must be taken. Reaching out to local and international nonprofit environmental organizations and learning about seagrass restoration efforts is a key way to move forward on this issue. In addition, support organizations like Seagrass Project is a great way to support cutting-edge research into herbaria preservation methods.

As countries strive to strengthen their economic position in the wake of COVID-19, a unique opportunity presents itself to the world. The preservation and restoration of seagrass meadows is a very effective method of creating jobs in professional fields such as environmental science and fisheries. It also gives countries a chance to achieve 10 of the United Nations Sustainability and Development Goals.

Right now the world is in a vulnerable position. This should not make us resort to a traditional line of thinking. Rather, it should encourage us to chart a new course. Similar to the overgrazing of Kenya’s seagrass beds, the fact that the world turns a blind eye to ocean conservation efforts symbolizes a clear tragedy of the commons. A collective good for carbon reduction is the seagrass ecosystem. It is imperative that the world preserve the underwater ecosystem in Kenya, not only to end a coastal food shortage, but also to help mitigate the international climate catastrophe that awaits us.

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