A vagrant Cape Sea Lion that made a record trip to Kenya is rescued from a fisherman’s gillnet.
By George Maina, marine project coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Kenya
Captain Mohamed Lali Kombo and his two crew members stared with bewilderment at the strange animal, deeply entangled in their fishing net, that was now on the floor of their boat. They had spent their entire lives fishing these waters off Kenya’s coast, but had never seen anything like it.
The fishermen considered their choices: kill this “sea dog” and save their gillnet; cut the gillnet to rescue the animal; or take it ashore to get help identifying and disentangling it. Knowing that there were conservationists and rangers in the coastal community who could help them, they chose the third option.
Once on shore, the “sea dog” was identified as an adult male Arctocephalus tropicalis (a subantarctic fur seal or, alternatively, a Cape sea lion), a species found in the southern parts of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. It’s no wonder the men didn’t know what it was – this sea lion was 210 kilometers further north than the species had ever been recorded before! The local people were so excited to see this new animal, they held a quick blessing ceremony before releasing it unharmed.
“To find an animal from the Southern Ocean almost on the equator is very unusual and very exciting,” said Dr. Greg Hofmeyr of Port Elizabeth Museum at Bayworld & Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. “Its record swim may have something to do with its expanding populations, which are recovering following near extinction in the early 20th century.”
Warming waters in their traditional habitat could also mean that they are exploring new areas in search of food and cooler water. The Kiunga Marine National Reserve, where the sea lion was caught, is positioned near a colder Somali Current. This current may have led him north with an abundant supply of food and probably some relief from the warmer surrounding waters.
While another Cape sea lion becoming entangled or killed in fishing gear in this part of the world is unlikely, more common species are still at high risk. Entanglement in nets is considered one of the biggest threats to many marine animal populations, including sea turtles, sharks and dugongs.
Gillnets are legal to use in Kenya and there are currently no regulations on mesh size limits for marine fisheries. This means that the communities who depend on these waters as their primary food source currently have no say in how and when these fisheries are being used.
That’s all about to change.
The Nature Conservancy and other local organizations, including NRT-Coast, Fauna & Flora International, State and County Departments of Fisheries and the Kenyan Wildlife Service, are partnering with communities along Kenya’s northern coast to support the development of fisheries co-management plans. By strengthening community governance, communities can take charge of the fishing practices happening in their area.
Part of TNC’s role here is to provide communities with ecosystem-scale science and data. This includes baseline information about the impacts of different types of fishing gear, where different species feed and breed, and what species are already threatened. Armed with this information, stakeholders organized in community conservancies and Beach Management Units (BMUs) can make appropriate management plans that are tailored to their needs.
The next step is to make these management plans enforceable by law. Eight BMUs on Kenya’s northern coast have already created bylaws that have been submitted to the Director of Fisheries. Once they are approved, BMUs will be empowered to enforce their own rules and protect their natural resources.
One of the things the bylaws will dictate is when and where different types of fishing gear can be used. For example, the 8-inch-mesh net that entrapped the sea lion poses a high risk of entanglement for large marine species in certain areas and depths. The new community-driven regulations include zoning for their use, which will minimize incidental captures like this one.
Kenya’s first Cape sea lion was quite lucky to have been found by these particular fishermen who spent hours to help set him free. With TNC’s ongoing work improving fisheries co-management in coastal communities, fewer animals will have to rely on luck to survive and thrive in these heavily fished waters.
George Maina is a marine project coordinator with The Nature Conservancy in Kenya, based in Lamu. Maina holds a B.sc in Aquatic Sciences from Egerton University in Kenya and an M.Sc in Water and Coastal Management offered jointly by Universidad de Cádiz (Spain) and University of Plymouth (UK), and he has over 10 years’ experience in coral reef fisheries conservation and management. His current work in the Northern Coast of Kenya involves collaborating with partners to design and implement conservation and community stewardship actions that conserve coastal and marine habitats, as well as livelihood improvement and enterprise development strategies.