Coral Reef Conservation Heroes Part 2 of 4: Dr. Nyawira Muthiga

November 4, 2020Dr. Helen Fox with Dr. Nyawira Muthiga

Dr. Nyawira Muthiga is the Director of the Marine Program Kenya and Conservation Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and co-founded (with Dr. Tim McClanahan) WCS’s coral reef programs. She has improved and strengthened the management of MPAs throughout the Eastern Africa region.

Nyawira collecting data near Dar es Salaam. (Photo by Mike Markovina, 2020)

How did you first get interested in coral reefs?

I developed my interest in the marine environment while living in Dar-es-salaam Tanzania, in the early 60s.  It was a great time to grow up in East Africa. Our countries had recently become independent and there was an air of optimism and empowerment.  We spent wonderful weekends on the beach swimming and exploring tide pools. I was fascinated by the strange and interesting creatures that I observed. In high school, we went on a field trip to Kanamai on the Kenya coast and I saw fringing coral reefs for the first time. I found corals fascinating, the shapes and colors and the numerous species of fish and echinoderms. There was so much energy and movement, it was very exciting. Kanamai is now coincidentally a successful community fisheries closure that WCS has worked closely with over the years, and we are now supporting the completion of the area’s co-management plan.

How long have you been working in coral conservation and what aspect of the field do you find most interesting?

My first introduction to coral reef conservation was at the University of Nairobi in 1979 when I joined an expedition to the Malindi Marine Park, one of the first MPAs to be established in Africa.  I learned coral taxonomy and how to scuba dive and was totally captivated by the reefs teeming with colorful corals, fish, and turtles.  I loved it. I have been hooked on marine biology ever since.  For my senior thesis, I studied coral growth using a method modified from the study of tree rings, using corals sampled from the Malindi Marine Park. Little did I know I would spend the rest of my career studying coral reefs including those in the MPAs in Kenya and across the western Indian Ocean (WIO).

What was your path to becoming Director of WCS-Kenya’s Marine Program & leading WIOMSA, and what are you currently working on in your role?

My path started with my first job at the Kenya Marine & Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) after completing my undergraduate degree. There, I developed skills in coral reef field research and also observed and monitored the widespread bleaching event of 1998 across East Africa. The impacts and death of more than 70% of corals during this bleaching event, more than any other, showed the devastating and global effects of climate change on coral reefs and the urgency of developing strategies and tools for better managing coral reefs.

Years later, I joined WCS as a Conservation Scientist and Director of the WCS-Kenya Marine Program. This allowed me to continue working with my spouse Dr. T. McClanahan in a long-term and productive scientific partnership. The work not only focuses on coral reefs in Kenya but also across the WIO where we have developed collaborative partnerships. Our work in Kenya includes conducting ecological and socioeconomic research on coral reefs, communicating the findings to various stakeholders and building the capacity for effective conservation and management of coral reefs. We also undertake research and assessments of coral reefs and have studied more than 200 reefs across the WIO including in Comoros, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles and the Republic of Tanzania. Over time, I also got more involved in regional initiatives through the Nairobi Convention (where I currently Chair the Coral Reef Task Force), and as two-term President of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA). I continue to contribute to WIOMSA through involvement in the regional MPA manager certification program, WIO-COMPAS, amongst other efforts.

Nyawira at Nosy Mitsio off the coast of Madagascar. (Photo by Emily Darling, 2020)

What’s the biggest challenge you face today in your work?

The greatest threats to coral reefs globally are overfishing and climate change and these are especially impacting reefs in Kenya and the WIO. Over the years, governments in the region have grown to understand the importance of marine ecosystems for their economies and people's livelihoods. Despite this understanding, working with national governments and communities to implement strategies to sustainably manage coral reefs and mitigate the impacts of these top threats is my greatest challenge. Continuing to advocate for coral reef conservation against a backdrop of poverty and the push for national economic development is challenging. This is especially true now with the global emergence and interest in developing a “Blue economy” focused on mining, fishing, and port development - sectors that if not deployed carefully could have enormous detrimental ecological and social impacts.

How can spatial tools like the Allen Coral Atlas improve marine management planning?

Currently in the WIO, countries are embarking on national marine spatial plans. The Allen Coral Atlas will assist in the prioritization process. It is crucial that coral reef areas found to be climate refugia, such as the proposed transboundary conservation area between Kenya and Tanzania, are protected.

Nyawira and a lionfish. (Photo by Mike Markovina, 2020)

Much of your work relates to anthropogenic impacts on coral reefs. How do you see societies and coral reefs co-existing? How have you seen communities benefit from restored coral reefs?

I see societies and coral reefs co-existing primarily through broad scale understanding (across all stakeholders including governments, civil society, and the private sector) of the crucial need to protect and conserve reefs. To ensure coral reefs remain a vital cornerstone of food, commerce, and culture for communities around the world, we must tackle the key challenges of over/destructive fishing, climate change, and other top anthropogenic threats like pollution and over-development of coastlines. 

I have seen communities benefit from increased understanding and knowledge about coral reefs. We host capacity-strengthening activities year-round, including our annual “Fishers’ Forum” in Kenya where information on fishing and its effect on reefs is disseminated to governments and small-scale fishers. Communities have come to accept that humans negatively impact coral reefs, and that they also have a crucial role to play in reducing this impact. The institutionalization of the Beach Management Units (BMUs) regulations in Kenya and Tanzania has created a legal mechanism for communities to become effective stewards of coral reefs. BMUs are now empowered to manage their fishing grounds through a co-management process.

Although many challenges remain in ensuring that all fishing grounds are effectively managed by BMUs, there are a few successful case studies that can be used as peer-to-peer learning sites. Communities are also benefiting from improved fish catches in well-managed areas, hence increasing household incomes and improving food security, while also gaining income from ecotourism in their community closures. There are also opportunities to set aside mangroves and seagrass beds for blue carbon, a relatively new addition to the tools of sustainable management of coral reef associated ecosystems.

What makes you most excited about the potential of tech in your work?

I am excited about the ability to consolidate and visualize large data sets to use for management and raising awareness about benefits and threats to coral reefs.

In close collaboration with the Allen Coral Atlas, WCS has also rolled out a reef monitoring platform called MERMAID over the last two years. Field scientists around the world input their underwater monitoring data into MERMAID, where they are automatically sorted and organized. It is then able to quickly generate graphs and statistics showcasing reef health information to share with governments and communities. The Atlas and MERMAID are complementary tools, and I am excited about our ability, for the first time ever, to truly have a clear overview of the health of the world’s coral reefs using these two platforms.

What do you see as the potential impact the Allen Coral Atlas can make for the world’s coral reefs?

Coral reefs globally are threatened by anthropogenic impacts. The severity of threats, management capacity, and natural resilience differ across coral reefs. The Allen Coral Atlas will assist in the identification and prioritization of key reefs, especially coral refuges that can survive climate change, that we need to act quickly to save. The Atlas is a critical tool to help inform national and regional action to ensure the sustainability of coral reefs.