Preserving the whales: Delicate balance for Kenya's Coast

Brian Sharp, the Director of Marine Mammal Rescue at IFAW, demonstrates the use of grapple and buoy tools that are utilized to keep the entangled whales or dolphins afloat while disentangling them from fishing nets for the fishermen. [Amos Kiarie, Standard]

Apart from its white sandy beaches and rich culture, the Kenyan coast is known for its vibrant marine life which includes a critical migratory route for humpback whales.

From July to October, these marine mammals grace the shores during their migratory journey, making it a unique experience for locals and tourists alike.

The period is also the breeding and calving season, when the mothers venture close to the shores, fiercely protecting their calves.

Humpback whales make a significant contribution in providing oxygen, combating climate change, and sustaining fish stocks. However, the devastating impact of commercial whaling has hindered their ability to lock in carbon and maintain a healthy ocean environment. Through their feeding habits, faecal matter, migrations, and deep-sea diving, facilitate the circulation of essential nutrients in a process commonly referred to as the “whale pump.”

In the absence of whale populations, the proliferation of krill, their main food source, would occur at an exponential rate.

Consequently, the increased consumption of phytoplankton and algae by krill would lead to a depletion of these vital resources, creating an imbalance within the marine ecosystem.

It is clear that the preservation and conservation of whales are crucial in our battle against climate change.

Increased whale populations will result in healthier oceans and, subsequently, fewer carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere.

At the heart of this delicate balance lies the predicament faced by local fishermen, whose livelihoods are dependent on the sea.

While they rely on fishing for their sustenance, the unintended consequence of entangling these marine mammals poses a serious challenge.

Yahya Mohamed, a local fisherman in Lamu, finds himself counting his blessings after an extraordinary encounter with a humpback whale, last year.

“I started fishing when I was just a small boy, and ever since then, it has been my way of making a living. That day, the waters were teeming with tuna and hampajack, and we were determined to make a successful catch. The fish were darting through the water at an incredible speed, so we had to sail swiftly, matching their pace, in order to reel in our catch,” he said.

Several nautical miles out in the water, he noticed something in the distance -- a large mammal swimming in the water.

As they drew closer, he realised that he had actually stumbled upon a humpback whale and her calf. He signaled to his colleagues to slow down and take a closer look.

“Since I started fishing, I’ve never seen anything as big and huge as that. I’ve only heard stories of fishermen coming across whales as they fish. I panicked and didn’t know what to do,” he said.

The calm serenity of their fishing expedition was shattered when a protective humpback whale, defending its precious calf, attacked their boats.

Luckily, they were able to fend off the attack without any injuries, but unfortunately, the fishing nets that they relied on for their work were damaged beyond repair during the encounter.

“We truly experienced a brush with death, our quick thinking and sheer luck enabled us to escape unharmed, but the loss of our fishing nets was a harsh reminder of the risks we face in the pursuit of our livelihood,” he said.

Sylvester Menza, like many other fishermen in Kilifi, has been facing a significant challenge when it comes to fishing in the ocean.

Dolphin entanglement in his fishing net has been a persistent issue resulting in financial losses for him.

“The price of these nets is quite steep since they are sold per meter, I buy mine for sh 60,000, but there are even more expensive ones that can go up to sh 200,000, depending on the desired fish size. We must strike a balance between our economic needs and the sustainability of our marine resources, ensuring the long-term viability of our livelihoods,” he said.

According to the Director of Marine Mammals Rescue at International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), as whales migrate along the Kenyan coast, it is crucial for fishermen to continue their fishing activities, enabling them to earn a livelihood. Simultaneously, this synergy between human activities and whale migration plays a vital role in mitigating climate change.

“This delicate balance ensures the sustainability of both the local economy and the preservation of marine ecosystems, fishermen need to be knowledgeable and skilled in disentangling whales and dolphins to protect not only their lives but also those of the marine mammals,” he said.