‘All will be well’: Q&A with Kenyan fisher turned coral gardener Katana Ngala

‘All will be well’: Q&A with Kenyan fisher turned coral gardener Katana Ngala
  • Once a fisherman, Katana Ngala has been restoring corals near his home in Kuruwitu, Kenya, for more than 20 years.
  • Early on, the area’s coral was degraded due to destructive fishing practices and coral bleaching, and he and other fishermen were experiencing diminished catches.
  • Now the coral and fish are flourishing in the area, which the local community set aside as a no-fishing zone.
  • Ngala spoke about the changes he’s seen in the coral garden over time and how he shares his commitment to the sea with fishers, students, scientists and the wider community in an interview with Mongabay at his seaside coral workshop.

KURUWITU, Kenya — Six days a week, Katana Ngala reports to his workplace, a rudimentary open-air workshop by the beach. Neat and well-shaded under huge palm trees, his workshop is the heart of his community’s coral restoration project in Kuruwitu, an area comprising four fishing villages in Kilifi county, Kenya.

On Ngala’s daily to do-list are: molding the small cone-shaped concrete plugs on which he and two colleagues grow coral fragments; building nursery beds where the fragments grow to transplantable size in the sea; making the concrete blocks that serve as foundations for new reefs; and making tags for labeling the baby corals. When he’s not at the workshop, he’s in the sea, settling coral plugs on the nursery beds, cleaning up the young corals, or installing the reef blocks.

Ngala and a few other fishermen started restoring corals here in 2000. Back then, he said, the area’s coral was degraded due to destructive fishing practices and the global coral bleaching of the late 1990s, and he and other fishermen were finding their catches diminished. He felt obligated to start restoring the corals himself, and over time he has received training and recognition from various conservation organizations. In 2003, the Kuruwitu Community and Welfare Association (KCWA) was formed to address these issues, representing the local fishing community’s interests. It set aside a 30-hectare (12-acre) area of the sea as a no-fishing zone, called a tengefu for “set aside” in Swahili, and started a program to restore it with corals, which Ngala heads.

Fishermen and scientists alike have observed improvements since the tengefu was formed. One study found that, in Kenya, community marine protected areas more than 5 years old, including the Kuruwitu tengefu, had significantly increased fish size, biomass and potential value compared to fished areas.

Coral degradation is hardly restricted to Kuruwitu. Coral reefs across the entire Western Indian Ocean are “vulnerable to collapse at the regional level,” according to a 2021 study. In some areas, future warming due to climate change was the main cause; in others, including Kenya, fishing pressure was.

Ngala says he’s always speaking about conservation, climate change and coral restoration with the many scientists, tourists and other visitors to Kuruwitu. His knowledge of the sea, the coral reefs and the kinds of fish that live there is immense. When asked about the fish now found in the area he’s restored with corals, his face lights up and he modestly reels off a long list of species he says weren’t there before. He says more people living along the coast should take responsibility for conserving and restoring the marine environment for the benefit of humanity and the sea itself.

Katana Ngala and team lowering concrete blocks into the sea.
Katana Ngala and team lowering concrete blocks into the tengefu, a zone the local community set aside for coral restoration where fishing is prohibited. The team will out-plant baby corals onto the blocks to create new reefs. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Mongabay caught up with Ngala in June at his seaside workshop after he’d spent the morning cleaning baby corals in newly set-up nurseries. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: How do you do go about restoring corals?

Katana Ngala: At sea, we look for broken corals, which are called corals of opportunities. We collect them, break them into smaller pieces which we will place on the [concrete] plugs using some special glue.

We have a special bed called the coral nursery. The nursery bed’s length is 200 centimeters [79 inches] which we have divided into 10 rows, and in each row we place 24 plugs so the table can take 240 plugs. When we are done preparing these coral nursery beds, we then fix a plastic mesh over it, put in the plugs and take them to the sea.

They must stay inside the water for a period of six months. For those six months we continue checking and cleaning where dirt has accumulated in the plugs and the mesh as well.

In that period, the rate of growth amongst the corals differs. There are some which grow faster, known as branching coral, and the slow ones are called massive or boulder corals. For the branching corals, after three to four months they will be ready and we can start the out-planting process. Otherwise, your duty is to check if they are clean and in good condition because they may be attacked by other plants, forcing the corals to die.

As we speak, we have a total of 31 tables [beds] inside there in the waters.

A restored coral reef in Kuruwitu.
A regrowing coral reef in the Kuruwitu tengefu. Image courtesy of KCWA.
Katana Ngala preparing labels for the nursery beds in his workshop in Kuruwitu.
Ngala preparing labels for coral nursery beds in his workshop in Kuruwitu. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Mongabay: How do you use the blocks and what is out-planting?

Katana Ngala: We use [concrete] blocks when out-planting the corals from the nursery [beds]. We join the blocks to come up with one big structure, then we proceed with drilling of holes. Thereafter, when we are out-planting, we take the corals and place them in the drilled holes. One structure is composed of 22 holes. After you have arranged [the blocks on the seabed] and you have done your out-planting, you have what we call a coral garden.

Mongabay: Do you do the restoration with the community or just with your colleagues?

Katana Ngala: We are a team of three people, but we usually have volunteers [often graduate students] helping and they usually work with us for quite some time, maybe a month or so. It is a win-win situation, whereby on one hand they will be doing their research and on the other they will be offering their assistance to us. We also started a program of taking this skill to different schools as a way of educating [local schoolchildren]. So that they can know the importance of coral as well as its restoration.

Another initiative is that we came up with training programs targeting fishermen, who we are part of as an association, because they are the immediate people who interact with this environment and they should know the importance of this ecosystem, especially when it comes to harvesting [fish]. Our focus and efforts should be more on the fishermen than on those who reside far from this vicinity.

Mongabay: You were a fisherman before. Do you still fish?

Katana Ngala: This is the work I love more than anything else, but fishing is what I did for a living before, which I am still passionate about. So, I can say I am a fisherman 100% and an environmentalist 100%.

Ngala's team making holes in the concrete blocks.
Ngala’s team making holes in the concrete blocks. Baby corals will eventually be planted in the holes. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Mongabay: Did you form the KCWA as a community-based organization for conservation purposes?

Katana Ngala: The urge to create it was brought up by the fishermen themselves from Kuruwitu sublocation. During the times of our forefathers, there were no much restrictions like today. They believed that the ocean belonged to God and there was no need for restriction. Any stranger could come and was allowed to [fish]. The problem with having no restriction was that it led to overexploitation. They came with big nets like beach seines whereby one such net fished in an area that 30-35 of our local fishermen could fish with their small nets and spear guns.

Mongabay: Were the strangers with beach seines Kenyan?

Katana Ngala: No, they were our neighbors from Pemba, Tanzania. When beach seining gained momentum, they realized there was a reduction of fish. This forced us to ask them to fish away from our territory. But the biggest challenge we faced was that they used to be licensed by the fisheries authorities, which gave them the power to fish anywhere. Which left us helpless.

Mongabay: When you plant corals, how do you feel?

Katana Ngala: It is that this job is beneficial in this country and the world at large. This is because of the climate change disaster, for example when the [ocean] temperatures are too high, it leads to the destruction of corals. It is therefore [important] for us, the people who live in the coast, especially those who use the ocean, to have one goal, which is to ensure that the corals continue to increase so that we can have more fish, so that we can benefit and the sea can benefit from us.

Mongabay: How old are the corals that you planted first?

Katana Ngala: The corals which I first planted have grown to about 30 centimeters [1 foot] in width, and I planted them in the year 2000.

Ali Garama, the Kuruwitu BMU chairman, said that fishermen occasionally trespass into the tengefu to fish, so the BMU employs guards to patrol it.
Ali Garama, chair of the Kuruwitu Beach Management Unit, a group representing local fishers and fish traders, with a fresh catch. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Mongabay: Which types of fish reside there?

Katana Ngala: Every coral you plant attracts different types of fish. I may not be in a position to mention all, but I can name some of them. There is the sea turtle, parrotfish, rabbitfish, goatfish, snappers, emperor fish, Moorish idol, butterfly fish, damselfish, catfish, crocodile needlefish, rosefish, sand punches, boxfish, porcupine fish, angelfish. There were not these many species before, but they have been attracted by the corals.

Mongabay: What is your expected outcome for the corals you have planted, in the next five or 10 years?

Katana Ngala: Because the corals are growing and increasing, the fish will increase as well. But when fish grow, they tend to look for bigger space [and leave the tengefu]. Fish differ when it comes to searching for food and habitat, some go as far as 5 kilometers [3 miles], some 2 [1.2 mi]. So those who go more distance run the risk of being captured by fishermen.

Our happiness is that this area we have reserved for reproduction purpose. If you take a walk there you will [see] a large number of fish still in the juvenile stage … [The tengefu] is a special site where fish breed, and when they are mature and [become] overpopulated, they migrate to other areas on their free will.

Mongabay: What does your community say about you involving yourself in coral restoration?

Katana Ngala: There is still less knowledge of coral restoration amongst my community members. I am the pioneer in this regard, and for now I have trained two more people and some students who usually visit, and in that process this knowledge of coral restoration will be spread, and in the next one to two years will be practiced in more places.

KCWA coral restoration team installing blocks in the tengefu.
KCWA coral restoration team carrying blocks for installation in the tengefu in preparation for out-planting baby corals. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Mongabay: How do you see the future of the coral in the area?

Katana Ngala: What we have allocated is 30 hectares, a very small area. But its benefits can be seen. Our BMU [beach management unit, a community group in charge of local fishing] has come up with a co-management plan which will manage 12 kilometers [an area 7.5 miles long], which will enable us look for space for coral restorations. This process will continue and all will be well.

Mongabay: Do you feel that this tengefu system is something that should be embraced widely?

Katana Ngala: It is very important for people to be educated on the importance of conservation and having a tengefu now … because we have a more serious challenge with global warming. Therefore, if people will not conserve and work on how to reduce global warming, we will be headed in the wrong direction.

Banner image: Katana Ngala driving a boat during a coral restoration project. Image by Anthony Langat for Mongabay.

Kenyan fishers put new twists on an age-old marine conservation system


Obura, D., Gudka, M., Samoilys, M., Osuka, K., Mbugua, J., Keith, D. A., … Zivane, F. (2021). Vulnerability to collapse of coral reef ecosystems in the Western Indian Ocean. Nature Sustainability, 5(2), 104-113. doi:10.1038/s41893-021-00817-0

Chirico, A. A. D., McClanahan, T. R., & Eklöf, J. S. (2017). Community- and government-managed marine protected areas increase fish size, biomass and potential value. PLOS ONE, 12(8), e0182342. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0182342

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Read More

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required