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The conservation work of Sea Sense
On a recent trip to Mafia Island, Matt was able to meet with the people behind Sea Sense – an NGO that works closely with coastal communities in Tanzania to conserve and protect endangered marine species. Here at Imagine we are big supporters of this important organisation. Here’s what Lindsey and Boniventure had to say on the work they are doing on Mafia Island…
What does Sea Sense do in Mafia?
Sea Sense is concerned with the conservation and protection of endangered marine species (sea turtles, dugong and whale sharks) and their habitats. Our work centres around four priority areas: research and conservation; education and capacity development; sustainable livelihoods; and governance and leadership. In Mafia we are conducting a sea turtle population census, carrying out research into sea turtle behaviour so that we can develop more robust conservation measures, and implementing a sea turtle ecotourism initiative. We are also conducting research into the distribution and abundance of dugongs and developing dugong conservation plans in collaboration with local communities. We are conducting fishery management training for community based fishery managers and implementing a waste management education programme that includes a flip-flop recycling project. Almost all threats to these species are human induced so it is critical that Sea Sense works closely with local communities including village councils, community fishery managers, primary and secondary schools, district councils and Marine Park Wardens. Sea Sense has established a network of community Conservation Officers in Mafia Island. Conservation Officers patrol nesting beaches each day, protect nests from predators and poachers and lead the sea turtle ecotourism initiative. They also serve as a vital link between Sea Sense and their community and act as ‘ambassadors for conservation’. Our ultimate goal is to change attitudes towards biodiversity conservation and change negative behaviours that threaten marine ecosystems and the biodiversity they support.
What are the biggest problems facing marine life in Mafia?
Sea turtles are facing a big threat from poaching in Mafia. Coastal communities have traditionally eaten sea turtle meat for generations and there are widespread myths and beliefs about the health benefits of eating turtle meat, for example that it increases fertility. Poaching for meat is common in Mafia, particularly in migrant fisher camps, even though it is illegal under Tanzanian fishery legislation. Both sea turtles and whale sharks are threatened by local fishing activities. They can become entangled in fishing nets which causes significant distress and in the case of sea turtles, eventual drowning. The problems we at Sea Sense face are predominantly caused by low levels of citizen awareness of the importance of biodiversity conservation, weak enforcement of laws and regulations protecting marine biodiversity, and poor prioritisation of the marine sector within higher levels of government.
How important is tourism for the conservation of marine species?
Tourism is extremely important because it brings people into closer contact with wildlife which has the potential to increase public appreciation of the marine environment and to spread awareness of threats to marine species and their habitats. This interaction may heighten awareness of the value of nature and lead to environmentally conscious behavior and activities to preserve the environment. Furthermore, a proportion of tourism revenue can be reinvested into conservation and local community development initiatives. A good example of this is the sea turtle ecotourism initiative established by Sea Sense in Mafia Island. Sea Sense receives $10 for every visitor who participates in an excursion to a nesting beach. Half of the revenue is retained by Sea Sense to support sea turtle conservation in Mafia and the other half is used for community development projects in villages close to nesting beaches. The revenue has been used to purchase school desks and books, solar panels for schools and supplies for village dispensaries. The initiative is helping communities to understand that tourism and conservation can generate economic benefits.
How can tourists help?
Tourists can help by participating in well managed ecotourism initiatives that benefit local wildlife and local people and making donations to the project if they have enjoyed the experience. Also, sharing information with friends and family back home can help to raise awareness of the plight of marine life in Tanzania.
Can you give us three interesting and unusual facts about sea turtles?
1. Turtles have one of the most advanced homing mechanisms in the animal kingdom. Female turtles return to the same nesting site every breeding season and can navigate across open oceans, travelling thousands of kilometres to reach their nesting sites. These nesting beaches are the very same beaches that they were born on several years before.
2. The gender of turtle hatchlings depends on how hot or cold their environment was while they were in incubating in their eggs. Warm temperatures produce more female hatchlings, whereas cooler temperatures result in males.
3. It is estimated that only one hatchling in a thousand will make it to adulthood due to threats from poaching for meat, predation by animals, entanglement in fishing nets and pollution.
And how about whale sharks – can you give us three interesting facts about them?
1. Whale sharks can grow up to 14 metres and weigh up to 12 tons.
2. The whale shark population in Mafia is made up of juveniles and dominated by males measuring up to 9 metres.
3. When a whale shark is feeding, its mouth can gape 1.5m wide. This creates tremendous suction that makes it impossible for its prey (shrimps, larvae and small fish) to swim out of the way.
When is the best time of year to see sea turtles hatching and whale sharks in Mafia?
The peak nesting season for green turtles in Mafia is in April and May, although nesting activity continues until the end of July. Green turtle eggs have an average incubation period of 55 days, which means June to September is the best time to see the hatchlings emerging from their nest.
Whale sharks are resident in Mafia all year round but they feed at the surface between September and April which means they are easily visible during these months. Between May and September they feed in deeper waters and are rarely seen.
Finally, what do you hope for the future of the Marine Park?
We hope that local communities living within and around Mafia Island Marine Park are able to participate more fully in the conservation and management of local marine resources, and that they come to recognise that environmental conservation is fundamentally linked to human health and wellbeing.
As explained by Lindsey and Boniventure, tourism is extremely important for the conservation of marine species.
If you want to plan a trip to Mafia Island, get in touch with our specialists on 020 3141 2810.