How Mnemba Islanders are restoring their reef

By Alfredo Lasteck, BBC News, Mnemba Island

Getty Images A view of the coral reef and underwater ecosystem on Bawe Island in Zanzibar, Tanzania, on June 23, 2023.fake images

Looking now at the Indian Ocean from Mnemba Island, it is hard to believe that just three years ago the impressive coral reef surrounding this part of the Zanzibar archipelago in Tanzania was dying.

Under threat from climate change, overfishing and other human activities, islanders faced the loss of their livelihoods and the prospect of moving away entirely.

Eager to save the colorful oval-shaped reef that is quite close to shore and is about 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) long, communities on the small island have adopted a conservation project that has managed to restore some of the that has been lost.

The initiative also aims to protect the reef, known around the world for its beauty.

The water is so clear that the reef, which lies 10 meters (32 feet) below the surface, seems almost within reach.

But a few years ago, locals began to notice how stressed the corals were; This was partly due to climate change, which has led to warmer temperatures at sea.

Coral may look like a plant, but it is a kind of animal; In fact, there are multiple tiny creatures called polyps. They grow very slowly and form a hard outer shell by extracting salt from seawater, then fuse together to form what are called colonies.

Reefs are sometimes called “rainforests of the sea” because they create ecosystems that support a wide range of marine life.

But when the water warms a few degrees more than normal, it causes the coral to expel the brightly colored algae that live inside and provide nutrients. As the algae leaves, the coral fades, bleaches, and eventually dies.

Dynamite used by fishermen has also destroyed the coral, as has the volume of unregulated tourist boats and divers causing damage to the reef.

Mnemba Island fishmonger Juma Mshindan says it became clear that something was very wrong: “There is a significant difference in the availability of fish before compared to now. In the past there was an abundance of fish.”

Oceans Without Borders Aerial view of MnembaOceans without borders

The coral reef can be easily seen through the clear water surrounding the island.

Sustainable tourism group &Beyond and non-profit organization Africa Foundation began collaborating with islanders in September 2021 to help address some of these issues.

Underwater nurseries were created using steel mesh tables, where coral fragments are grown for replanting on the coral reef.

They are attended and cared for by local divers who have been trained as conservation rangers.

It takes about two or three months for a coral colony to form and then the rangers take them to the reef.

The results so far are encouraging: 80% of coverage has been restored in what is called the “inner reef” surrounding the island.

“It’s like they grew up on their own,” says ranger Daughter Uledi.

“We have restored the reef and you can’t tell the difference. Now they have fish out there. The work is great and you can see many species.”

Conservationists also created artificial reefs: steel and stone structures that were placed about 3 kilometers from the island and where conservation rangers also planted newly grown coral in nurseries.

Their goal is to help replenish marine life, which benefits fishermen and they have also become destinations for snorkelers and divers.

Dr. Camilla Floros, senior scientist at the Africa Foundation’s Oceans Without Borders program, says the ongoing restoration plan is careful to work with the right materials, learning from past mistakes around the world.

“When artificial reefs were in their infancy, people used inappropriate materials, such as tires, to try to create them, which is not the right approach,” he says.

The success of the regeneration work around Mnemba Island is down to the support of the local community, Dr Floros acknowledges.

“Every time we have a new initiative, we discuss it with them and get their acceptance,” he says.

Atuwa Omar is a local resident who participated in the restoration. Before taking a position as a ranger, the 24-year-old was at home caring for her young son.

“Being a ranger on this project on Mnemba Island not only allows me to provide food for my family, but also supports my son’s education,” he says.

Although Omar admits that it has not been easy for her, since she is the only woman working on the project.

She has faced conservative attitudes from some who don’t want women to participate, but she says those challenges have been worth it.

Atuwa Omar is the only diver on the project.

Conservation groups have been working hand in hand with local authorities and the seas around Mnemba were designated a protected area by the government of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, in 2022.

This means that measures can now be taken to limit the damage caused by tourists and fishermen.

Bakari Jaha, coordinator of the Zanzibar Africa Foundation, highlights the number of tourists who visited the reef.

“At first, the area suffered significant pressure from tourism: 200 boats with at least 400 guests entered an area of ​​only 200 square meters,” he says.

“To preserve the area, the government, together with &Beyond and the Africa Foundation, decided to limit the number of visitors to 80.”

In the past, visitors were charged $3 (£2.40); this cost has now increased to $25.

“This approach has not only improved environmental preservation but also increased income,” says Jaha.

Fishing around the house reef has also been suspended while it is being restored.

“We have seen positive changes. Illegal practices, such as the use of dynamite, have decreased and fishermen have become more knowledgeable about sustainable fishing methods,” says fisherman Mshenga Ally.

Getty Images Traditional dhow boats sail past Mnemba Reef in the blue sea on December 12, 2008 in Zanzibar, Tanzania.fake images

It is not difficult to understand why the island and its surrounding waters attract tourists.

The Zanzibar government says it is so encouraged by the success of the Mnemba restoration project that it is looking to expand it to other threatened areas.

“The government has identified 14 areas with intact reefs and others with damaged corals and we are planning to preserve them,” says Dr Makame Omar Makame, director of the Zanzibar Marine Department.

“We have placed buoys so that people are careful, understanding that fishing activity is not allowed in that place.”

The pressures on Zanzibar’s reefs mirror the threats facing coral reefs around the world. Those involved in the Mnemba project say that while they can’t stop warmer ocean currents, they hope their efforts can help other threatened areas.

“The relationship between the sea and corals is crucial for the health of the oceans. We have witnessed coral regeneration, even at significant depths,” says Jaha.

“We are allowing sea conditions to restore the reefs to their original state.”

You might also be interested in:

Getty Images/BBC A woman looking at her mobile phone and chart BBC News AfricaGetty Images/BBC

Leave a Comment