Peter Musembi and TFUI Officer Julia met while both doing research at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) substation in Gazi, Kenya. Both very passionate about marine conservation and the importance of working with the local
communities, there was a lot to share and Peter agreed to do an interview for TFUI. Here, he talks about his experience of assessing shark and ray abundance in Marine Protected Areas in Kenya and his current work around biodiversity and livelihood baselines from seagrass meadows in the South of Kenya.
The Fins United Initiative: What got you interested in marine biology?
Peter Musembi: Mainly it has been through experience and exposure. Though I was born at the coast of Kenya, I did most of my studies inland of the country and only interaction with the ocean was weekends on the each during the holidays. I did my undergraduate in aquatic sciences and got involved with several marine related projects and started understanding what I used to see on the beach. This got me really interested in marine biology and marine life and I started going out more frequently. Coming from a background where people are more comfortable with “mainstream” fields such as medicine, teaching and law this was a bold step.
TFUI: So, what is the project you are currently working on and how did you get involved?
PM: I am currently doing my MSc in a local university and looking at the fisheries assemblage and exploitation patterns seagrass meadows in south coast of Kenya. This is part of a biodiversity and livelihoods baseline for a seagrass carbon offset project. I am also involved with assessing sharks and rays diversity and their cultural and spiritual values in one of the oldest marine protected areas in Africa. This is an interesting project supported by Save Our Seas Foundation as sharks and rays are limitedly studied in the country despite of their socio-ecological importance to the coastal and marine systems. Recently, demand of shark products such as shark fins is on the rise and their population are declining. Additionally shark are caught as both targeted fisheries and incidental catch. Information on status and trends of sharks and rays is very limited as is management action. It is important to understand what we have and what we might be losing and set up appropriate mitigation strategies.
TFUI: Yes, those seem like really crucial elements to understand and link together the social/cultural and biological aspects. In your previous work you said you were assessing shark and ray abundance in protected areas along the Kenyan coast, what was the outcome of that research?
PM: I found that there is relatively high diversity and abundance of sharks and rays in marine protected areas that are possibly using the areas as nursery and feeding grounds, although we need to carry out long term assessment to ascertain this. In this study I recorded the blacktip and whitetip reef shark, whale sharks, two species of guitarfish and seven species of rays. There is also high incidental catch of sharks including juvenile ones around the protected area. Although this study was carried out in just one protected area, anecdotal information shows some evidence of high diversity of sharks and rays even in shallow coastal waters. Such species include blacktip reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, hammerheads sharks, tiger sharks, angel sharks and several rays and guitarfishes. We are now developing an assessment program for the whole Kenya coast and assisting the management agency Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to develop specific management action for sharks and rays.
TFUI: That sounds promising at least! How is the connection that the locals have with sharks and rays in Kenya? Do people understand their importance?
PM: I think the ecological role of sharks and rays is not well known. Sharks and rays are often depicted as the veracious marine predators and would always attack anything is the ocean which is not the case. When I tell people I am a marine biologist the first question is normally, “you don’t fear sharks?”. However, among old fisherfolks and coastal people, there a lot of information about some shark species. For example the whale shark locally known as papa shilingi has some spiritual connection with a local legend told that when God created the whale shark it was so beautiful that he ordered his angels to sprinkle gold and silver coins on it that’s why it has the marks. Other also know the areas where you are likely to see sharks during certain times of the year. This is likely pointing to some shark species exhibiting philopatry.
TFUI: What about in Africa overall - do you think people have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
PM: People in Africa and especially in East Africa have had a good relationship and connection with the ocean for a long time and this has shaped a lot of cultural beliefs to date. You see this a lot on people’s fishing behaviours and interaction with the ocean. Some traditional culture consider some parts of the coast or ocean sacred and would not be exploited. This has managed to keep these areas pristine. However some of these cultural values are deteriorating as people embrace “new” ways of exploiting the ocean such as using efficient gears as opposed to traditional methods some which are not necessarily sustainable. There is great traditional ecological knowledge in people that can be tapped and complemented with modern scientific knowledge and methods such as isolating populations of the same species through genetics and assessing residency patterns using acoustic tagging and help in better management of marine resources.
TFUI: I like the idea of such complementary and interdisciplinary research working closely with the community! Moving on from here - what does your daily life look like, do you keep to a particular schedule or is every day different for you?
PM: My days are different depending on the activities I am doing, the weather conditions and seasons. When I have fieldwork (this is normally during the north east monsoon winds along the East Africa coast when the ocean is calm) I spend most of my day in the oceans snorkeling, SCUBA diving or in fish landing sites doing fisheries catch assessment. I spend my afternoons doing data, reading and writing. Some days I carry out field expeditions and talks with students from primary, secondary and universities. Other days I spend hanging out with fishers, tourist operators and other marine users talking with them about their activities and sometimes going out with them. When the ocean is rough I have less field days I spend most of the time in the office reading, writing proposals, maintaining equipment planning for the next field season.
TFUI: Sounds like you have a variety of activities in your current position. What are your future plans? Do you have a 'dream research’ or conservation project you would like to work on?
PM: I will still stick with biodiversity of shallow marine habitats and especially I want to focus on elasmobranch ecology looking as their spatial ecology, status and change in their habitats, population structures and interaction with fisheries and their cultural values.
TFUI: Looking back at your past experiences from here, who’s inspired you most in your science career?
PM: I have several people who guided me into marine biology. My undergraduate professor showed and guided me into the field. My mentors during my internship, David Obura from CORDIO EA inspired and developed my experience in coral reef studies. My colleagues at A Rocha Kenya Robert Sluka and Benjamin Cowburn. I am still a science student so I always get a lot of inspiration from different people on my day to day activities.
TFUI: If it hadn’t been marine biology, what other field interests you or where else do you think you would have ended up?
PM: I am mostly an outdoor person so maybe I would have been in forestry or photographing wildlife.
TFUI: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself and your career in five years?
PM: I am currently finishing my MSc. I am also developing a shark and rays research and conservation projects along the Kenyan coast to look at population structures of several shark and ray species, their habitat use and fisheries which I hope to undertake for my Phd. I want to develop my skills in marine biology and be able to inspire students to take up science careers.
TFUI: What do you hope others can take away from your experiences?
PM: Science is not as hard and boring as we believe it to be, it is full of adventure. Among my most interesting moments I have had while I am doing science. It require perseverance and curiosity and always looking for opportunities. Be passionate of what you do and you will never have a boring day, work hard and challenge yourself. You can always learn something from everyone.
Peter obtained his Bachelor degree in Applied Aquatic Sciences from Egerton University and is currently completing the research for his Master’s degree in Fisheries at Pwani University at the KMFRI substation in Gazi Bay, in the South of Kenya. Before, he worked as a Research Intern at CORDIO East Africa and acted as a project leader for the “Save our Seas Foundation” when working as a Research Assistant for ‘A Rocha Kenya’ in Watamu, a small town on the northern coast of Kenya.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK peter FOR HIS TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
SEARCH BY CATEGORIES