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Incomes dwindle as ebbing plastic wastes clog fish breeding, tourist attraction sites

Wasini Beach Management Unit Chair Noordin Musa displays some of the piles of plastic waste washed ashore by waves at Mkunguni, Wasini Island. [Joackim Bwana, Standard]

Wasini Island, a secluded tourist gem, is also home to more than 250 fish species and a breeding ground for turtles. But this natural habitat to a lot of biodiversity continues to face catastrophic destruction due to heavy plastic waste in the mangrove forest.

The massive plastic waste that washes ashore on the island, ends up in the mangrove forest in Mkunguni, causing deaths of fish and turtles in their numbers.

The fish and turtles have also begun to migrate in search of cleaner and safer breeding grounds. 

Standing to lose as a result are more than 200 fishermen and 3,000 households that solely rely on tourism and fishing for livelihood on the Island that lies at the periphery of Kwale County.

When The Standard team visited the island last week, it witnessed massive plastic dumping, which has also become an eye sore at the shores of Mkunguni Beach, the Island’s backside that is regarded as one of the most endeared breeding grounds for the fish and turtles.

A tour deeper into the mangrove forest exposed us to more piles of used water bottles, and those of engine oils, lotions, yoghurt or soda. Slippers and polythene bags added to the ugly mix.

Piles of plastic waste bottles at Likoni landfill. The bottles are part of the waste collected from Shelly beach in Likoni by the Beach Management Unit MBUs. [Joackim Bwana, Standard]

Local fishermen blame the neighbouring Zanzibar, Tanzania, Seychelles and Comoros, and also cite ships as a source of plastic dumping. However, there is no data or recorded evidence to support the allegations.

Mkandi Vuyaa, a fisherman at Wasini Island, says: “I have found several fish with plastic inside them. I found one huge fish that had died and was swept to the shore by the waves. It had plastic inside it,” says Vuyaa.

He says with the plastic menace, the number of fish they used to catch per trip has immensely dwindled from 50kg in 1989 to 3kgs. Sometimes, they return home empty-handed. “Plastic waste is a big problem to us because a lot of fish die. And now the fish don’t come to the mangroves to breed because the plastic waste has taken up space in their habitat,” says Vuyaa, 58.

He reminisces how, as a child, they would struggle to even carry their catch home. “The amount of fish has reduced significantly. When I used to go fishing with my father in the early 90s, we would catch and fill three huge baskets and be forced to abandon some fish because we couldn’t carry all at one go,” says Vuyaa.

Between January and March 2021, at least 80 young turtles were reported dead in Marereni Kilifi County by Dr Thomas Kalama Mkare, a researcher at Kenya Maritime Fisheries and Research Institute (KMFRI).

Dr Kalama cited plastics and the discharge of poorly treated waste by nearby salt-making factories as some of the causes of the deaths. Trawling and poaching were the other causes.

The Wasini Beach Management Unit (BMU) Chairperson Noordin Musa says the island is the “headquarters” of plastic waste dumping. He says each season registers huge plastic deposits on the island’s sides.

Musa says the plastic pollution may rob the island of its rich source of fish and tourists who flock to the area for snorkelling and to watch dolphins, humpback whales and corals.

Plastic waste washed ashore by waves at Mkunguni, Wasini Island. [Joackim Bwana, Standard]

He says dolphins, whales and turtles fear and are affected by dirt, while plastics bleach and kill corals. “With the plastic, fishing and tourism will reduce, because no tourist will come to the island with this magnitude of plastic waste, and yet they want to watch dolphins, corals and the other fish,” says Musa.

He says previously Wasini Island was the community’s dumpsite. “When we started working with the community in 2007 to ensure the ocean is clean, we faced a lot of challenges because at the time the ocean was the dumpsite. But we did awareness and succeeded because now people understand the danger of waste in the ocean,” says Musa.

He concurs with Vuyaa that plastic waste is not brought by locals anymore but mainly washed ashore from different parts of the world, like Malaysia and Comoros. Musa says despite efforts to clean the mangrove forest, the plastic remains uncollected and ends up back at the ocean.

In the past two weeks, he says, they have transported four boats full of plastic waste across to the mainland. But even that has not been collected at Shimoni Fisheries. “They (plastic waste) remain uncollected for days and end up back in the ocean. Children wash and sell them to juice vendors,” says Musa.

He wishes a company would buy the plastics, or a dumpsite be available for the same to be disposed of to help solve part of the problem. “The problem is that our cleaning efforts won’t reduce the plastics because it returns to the ocean,” says Musa.

He appealed for a good strategy to ensure plastic waste does not end up back in the ocean.

Musa says despite having in place laws that regulate waste management, plastic manufacturers are not involved in ensuring the collection of plastic waste. “Their aim is to sell their products. They are not in the new fight against the plastic menace,” says Musa.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Coastal Kenya Programmes Manager Asma Awadh says most of the fish at sea confuse plastics for food. Fish like Taffy, for instance, confuse green-coloured plastics for grass and eat them.

She says most of the plastics consumed by fish go to the digestive system and some slightly broken down pieces are consumed by humans.

“When we buy fish, we need to clean it well because they get contaminated with plastics with micro and nano plastics and if consumed one may end up developing complications,” says Awadh.

She says the turtles are already an endangered species despite playing an important role in stabilising the ecosystem. “Turtles have a double tragedy because they are poached for meals in some cultures and some drown from illness, nets and plastics. The green turtles feed on sea moles and seaweed, therefore cleaning up the sea and making it better for the fish. They are cleaners of the environment and stabilise the ecosystem,” says Awadh.

She says the WWF is implementing the Circular Economy Initiative established in 2020 to build a future where plastic is valued and managed in a way that serves human and environmental well-being. It is also to ensure no plastic leaks into nature.

The plastics have chocked the mangrove forest destroying the fish and turtle breeding ground. [Joackim Bwana, Standard]

And with the new Sustainable Waste Management Act, Awadh says all the open dumpsites will be closed within two years to reduce the eyesore and prevent waste from finding its way back to the environment. “The law will provide a guideline on the formation of engineered landfills, which are professional ways to manage waste. The landfill will take care of the general waste, but each county must have a materials recovery facility where plastics will be managed,” says Awadh.

She says according to KMFRI, as much as Kenya contributes to plastic waste dumping, most of the plastics are washed to the shores by waves from other countries.

Although there are no international laws binding nations to together ensure controlled ocean dumping, Awadh says there is a proposed treaty that will put pressure on nations to stop ocean dumping.

“Although there is no global treaty on plastic management, WWF has been able to work with our counterparts in other nations to put pressure on different countries to at least have the problem solved,” says Awadh.

She, however, acknowledges that there is no clear documentation and data of ships caught dumping plastics at sea and that the Coast guards do monitor ships entering different territorial water spaces. “We now have a global treaty on plastic management and WWF has been able to work with our counterparts to put pressure on different countries to at least have the problem solved,” says Awadh.

She says WWF partnered with Mombasa County under the Plastic Smart Cities programme for three years to do away with plastic use.

Through circular economy, several waste collectors have benefited from the WWF training on waste sorting, safety and finding a reliable market for the refuse to help them earn while cleaning the environment.

“Awadh also says sorting garbage from the source will go a long way in managing waste dumping by households and the Sh20,000 penalty put in place will help enforce the laws. “We have an Act on solid waste management, but it is up to Kenyans to want a clean environment,” says Awadh.

She says with Extended Producer Responsibility Regulation (EPRR), all manufacturers will take responsibility for the end of life of all products to promote the circular economy and ensure waste management is adequately dealt with.

WWF is also working with The Kenya Association of Manufacturersand other stakeholders through the EPR to have consumers given incentives for collecting plastic bottles.