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Words by Austin Humphries Design by Helene Barbe

Driven by innate curiosity and a deep love for the sea, American-born marine scientist, Austin Humphries, discovers mirror-like images in his research: the daily loss of life in coral reefs and the diminishing livelihood of the fishermen on the coast of Kenya. Here he describes one day out of many that he spent observing the life under the sea and the lives of those depending on it, and includes an animated documentary that complements his written word with actual fisherman, fish and fauna in Kenya.

I crack my eyes open and hoist my elbows up to check the water once more; it’s still too high. Another hour to wait. At least.

It’s 3am and I lie back down in my tent. I’m camping along the beach in Kenya and waiting for the tide to go out so I can start my day. I’m alone and sticky in the tropical air, and all I can hear are fishermen cackling in the dark, emerging from the forest with spears and nets and, just like me, waiting for the tide to go out. I’m here to study the ecology of the nearby coral reefs and how fishing affects them, specifically the seaweeds and fishes that call these reefs home. The fishermen are here to try and maintain a livelihood that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. In reality, our goals are one in the same. Underwater, corals and plants are constantly playing a balancing game with one another, competing for sunlight and nutrients that are necessary for survival and growth. If plants are able to grow and become larger than corals, they can grab the resources before the corals get a chance. Think of them as trees in an underwater forest, but replace the shrubs with corals. As you might imagine, this can be bad for the growth of corals and their reefs, which lots of fishes and other critters are dependent upon for shelter. However, to combat this overgrowth of seaweeds, there are herbivores, both fishes and sea urchins, which eat them. In theory, this keeps the weeds cropped so corals can be happy and build reefs that provide habitat for organisms. Enter fishing: what happens when these herbivores are taken out of the system?

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Fishermen preparing their boat for the day.
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“Camping on the beach, which isn’t as romantic as it might sound, is necessary to be able to swim the 2 kilometers out to my site and be there by 5 am for low tide.”

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Corals and seaweeds compete for space, sunlight, and nutrients.
Working at low tide reduces logistics and potential problems.

Near my home in Mombasa and all up and down the Kenyan coast, reef-building corals run parallel to much of the shoreline and form a breakwater to the waves of the Western Indian Ocean. This creates a band of water that is calm, shallow, and easily accessible to both fishes and fishermen. Take this setting and the open-access nature of fisheries, throw in chronic poverty and an overall lack of food security, and we get a resource that is heavily exploited with little to no discrepancy. This obviously isn’t a recipe for a seascape with lots of fish, but how, given these circumstances, can we expect fisherman to leave any fish in the water? I’ve been living and researching coral reefs in Kenya for almost two years, and today I’m going out to put cameras in the water and video an experiment. Camping on the beach, which isn’t as romantic as it might sound, is necessary to be able to swim the 2 kilometers out to my site and be there by 5 am for low tide. By working at low tide, I’m able to free dive and avoid the logistical nightmares involved with SCUBA tanks.

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It’s still dark when I arrive at the reef. As I catch my breath and rest my legs, I notice the silhouettes of fishermen passing me in their dugout canoes and hear others as they swim past. Those that pass close enough to see to me, eye my gear with skepticism and probably wonder how I’m going to catch any fish without a net or spear. I situate my cameras next to the experiment that I’ve set up and been monitoring for over one year. I’m using algal growth plates (which are made from cross-sections of dead coral) to create a surface that allows algae and seaweeds space to establish and grow. I monitor what types of plants, and how much, are growing on the plates. And I also record video to determine what fish are responsible for producing these patterns. If I can establish who the key players are in the game of preventing the seaweeds from establishing and growing, and consequently keeping the corals happy, I can have a better idea of who would be of potentially more value on the reef than on the end of a spear.

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I finish my work 4 hours later, collect the cameras and swim back to shore with the rising tide. Some of the fishermen are also finished with their work and retreat to the shore before the tide becomes too high. Many of them pass me. Once on shore, everyone crowds around as they empty their catch. I nudge in and see some familiar faces from my videos.

The sun is blazing and I’m tired, salty, and dehydrated. As I sit down to rest and wait for the tide to go out again, the fishermen retreat through the forest with their nets and spears, and like me, find somewhere to sit and wait for the next low tide.

If you’re interested in learning more about some of Austin’s other research and scientific endeavours, head this way