Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution Programme

Authors: Emma Algotsson (Catchgreen), Faith Gara (SMEP), Catharine Mwalugha (KMFRI)

Fishing gear such as hand lines and nets, trawling nets, gillnets, basket traps, and ropes and twine for aquaculture account for up to 27% of African marine litter. These fishing gear become “ghost nets” when they are accidentally lost, abandoned or discarded in the marine environment. The “ghost nest” continue to catch both target and non-target species, entangle and kill marine animals, threatened or protected species, and commercially important fish species. They impose danger to boat operations, damage coral reefs and the seabed and present a safety hazard for ocean users.

The Catchgreen project, a collaboration of the SMEP-funded GAIA Biomaterials and consortium project partners Kompost-it, Fish SA and Altnet, is currently piloting biodegradable compostable fishing nets in Kenya while contributing to coral restoration efforts and supporting seaweed farming, a predominantly female-led industry.

GAIA’s speciality and knowledge base is material development, while the Catchgreen partners are providing product development and piloting. In addition, the project team is working with governments, the fishing industry, and NGOs to get support and uptake for the biodegradable nets. The Catchgreen project anticipates that these piloted biodegradable ropes and twine will have several benefits, including:  

  • Making the seaweed industry more competitive.
  • Attracting investment, and possibly obtaining plastic credits.
  • Catchgreen is also working with other industry stakeholders to explore avenues for subsidising these products to ensure affordability. 

Engagement with Mikindani Fishermen: First impressions

The first ever piloting of the Biodolomer®Ocean ropes in fishing nets modification in Kenya was carried out by the Kenya Marine Fisheries and Research Institute (KMFRI) in collaboration with the Beach Management Units (BMUs) – the backbone of fisheries co-management in the country. The Mikindani BMU has previously been involved in a FAO project that modified some aspects of the gillnets to replace the nylon twines on the headline with biodegradable twines.

Emma Algotsson (Catchgreen Project lead) and Faith Gara (SMEP Project Management) joined the KMFRI team and the BMUs in September, where the fishermen demonstrated how they had modified gillnets with the new biodegradable twine. The fishermen expressed their appreciation for being the first-ever users of the ropes and the efforts towards more sustainable fishing gear.

Photo: Meeting with the Mikindani fishermen.

During the workshop, the fishermen shared several ways to dispose of their old fishing gear, including burning, dumping, and reusing it to make chicken mesh. Some participants indicated that they just keep them around [fishing nets] as they can’t burn or let go of something they have spent money on. Therefore, the biodegradable qualities of the ropes were welcomed, as they felt the material would ensure that the ropes could be returned to the Earth  through compositing and not harm the environment. While the fishermen noted a few modifications upon receipt and first impressions of the ropes, they were happy to start the catchability experiment to see if the modified nets are as effective as the old ones in maintaining the catch quantities / do not alter their catch. 

The story of the Kibuyuni seaweed farming

In 200I, KMFRI introduced seaweed farming in Kibuyini and four other villages to encourage income generation for women previously limited to agriculture. WIth the support of the KMFRI scientists, the women in the village have been taught how to plant, harvest and process seaweed for the export market. Youth from the village were trained on value addition skills from the seaweed through making various cosmetic products, e.g. soaps, shampoo and body lotion. 

Mama Fatuma is the pioneer of seaweed farming and tells the stories of how seaweed farming has changed the livelihoods of the locals in Kibuyuni village. 

“Seaweed brings us food to the table and sends our children to school. We even have electricity here now. Seaweed farming has changed our lives in many ways, although it has not been an easy journey. Most women on this Project have built brick houses for their families from this income.” [Mama Fatuma]

The SMEP Catchgreen project assists this project by providing biodegradable ropes to mitigate the devastating impacts of plastic ropes on the marine environment. These biodegradable ropes are designed to reduce microplastics and toxic plastic accumulation in the ocean. It takes approximately two years for Biodolomer®Ocean ropes to break down into biomass, water, and carbon dioxides.

Iliustration:  How the Biodolomer®Ocean ropes are deployed in seaweed farming.

The women seaweed farmers are now participating in piloting the Biodolomer®Ocean Ropes. It includes monthly monitoring of the growth rate and dry biomass for both biodegradable and normal nylon ropes. The farmers will also regularly check for strength and biodegradability. Once the biodegradable ropes start breaking, they will be subjected to composition under normal decomposition conditions to simulate the decomposition of recovered ropes. Bringing seaweed farming and scientific research to the village has capacitated the local women to take ownership of their future. 

Mama Fatuma, also the current Kibuyini seaweed farmers chairperson, was the first villager to work with KMFRI during the research into seaweed farming in 2001. She explained how the KMFRI project has positively impacted the village. While the process has been long and sometimes discouraging, seaweed farming has greatly impacted the village.  

“I was the only woman who volunteered to participate in the trials for two years until 2003. After that [the trials], KMFRI left, and I went back to farming maize, but I did not give up; I kept following up with the local marine research office in Shimoni. The Scientists told me that if you plant Seaweed, it will attract fish. I was very curious and interested. The ocean is our life now.

In 2010, after a long wait, the KMFRI project officially started. Mama Fatuma began an awareness campaign and got 11 women to join her. Eventually, after KMFRI put them in contact with buyers, they attracted more women to join. However, the buyer from Tanzania disappeared in 2014, but the women continued to farm and harvest Seaweed.  

“Our stacks of harvested seaweed were higher than that branch.” (Mama Fatuma pointed about 2 metres high.)  “In 2015, we managed to get another buyer from Somalia, who paid three times more per kg than we got from the previous buyer, and each woman (70 in total) received about KSH 150 000 (1015.92 USD). We built brick houses. I even managed to send my daughter to University. After seeing this, other people became interested in the project. Previously, the farmers had to buy the seeds from Tanzania; now, they have their own nursery.” 

Norah Mwangangi has been working as the KMFRI officer for over 15 years. Norah narrated how her presence in the village has inspired more families to send their daughters to school.  

“There was only one girl who had reached form four when I started working here and has now been employed by the KMFRI branch. When the villagers saw a woman research officer, they were really inspired to send their daughters to school as they could see the possibilities for educated girls.  

In 2016, mama Fatuma was re-elected as chair of the seaweed farmers. She was invited to the UN Nairobi office; FAO wanted to see her, where she met the former president and took a photo with him. Mama Fatima beamed with pride as she explained:  

“The president promised he would come to the village, and he [the president] came in 2019, which led to the building of a road to enable the presidential cars to travel to the village. In essence, seaweed farming had brought many benefits to the village”. 

The FAO and Kenya Coastal Development Project (KCDP) funded the seaweed drying area. Currently, there are 248 farmers, each with a model farm which consists of 300 ropes. The average yield is about 5 to 6 MT per month, fetching 30 to 35 Kenyan shillings per kg of dried seaweed. 

Seaweed farming has not escaped the harsh impacts of climate change. In 2022, the area experienced warm currents from Tanzania, and most of the Seaweed was destroyed. The farmers have had to start building the population with new seeds again. Global warming has forced women to adapt their farming practices regarding the variety of seaweed planted and move their farms to deeper, calmer waters. 

This will require other ways of planting, especially in deeper waters where the prevalence of the ropes being lost is much higher. In this regard, the Biodolomer®Ocean ropes are essential given the interface of climate change and biodiversity loss and the socioeconomic need for more women to join seaweed farming in the area, leading to a higher demand for environmentally friendly ropes.   

“What we need now is a boat to be able to access the deeper sea waters. The new seaweed species Cottonnii grows better in deeper, colder water. We also need to train the youth to help us.”

Most of the farmers are older women and a few men. The youth mostly work on the value addition projects of making cosmetics from seaweed. The Kenyan Government provided a building and some cosmetic-making machines for the community. Mama Fatuma pointed out that it would benefit the farmers if they could sell directly to the final buyers as the price they currently receive is very low.  

The middleman sets the price. We have no choice but to accept whatever price they offer us. We need assistance with marketing and reaching out to buyers.”  

Photo: Cosmetic products on show at the seaweed farming site.

Mama Fatma explained that seaweed farming also brought ecological benefits to the area. “There are so many fish now! Recently, some Tanzanian fishermen caught many fish here. The number of fish has increased since we started farming seaweed. Previously, people came to collect fish and plants for the aquarium business, but this has stopped since the seaweed business began.   

See a short video on the Kibuyini seaweed farming project here. 

Coral restoration - a small place called Wasini

The Catchgreen project is also piloting the biodegradable  Biodolomer®Ocean ropes in a coral restoration project in picturesque Wasini Island in Kenya.   The coral gardens were established in 2013 by the Kenyan Government in collaboration with UNDP. A nursery of  690 seedlings of different species was planted in 2014. While some of the seedlings are thriving, some do not survive. Eleven divers from Wasini were trained on open water skills and coral planting by the Kenya Coastal Development Project. The coral restoration project has been very expensive for the community after the UNDP funding ceased in 2014. 

The testing of the Biodolomer®Ocean ropes started with a survey to identify optimal sites for planting the coral seedlings. Initially, cement blocks were used to grow corals. This technology was expensive and cumbersome exercise. One bag of cement gave only three blocks; a standard size for restoration requires 16 blocks. 

Iliustration: Coral farm deployment using the Biodolomer®Ocean ropes.

We were told the ropes will biodegrade, which is a welcome development, given the challenge of plastic pollution in Wasini, mostly from other areas and Climate change, which is causing the fish to disappear. We are happy to have a more sustainable alternative to growing corals. We have piloted the ropes in our locally managed community area and are waiting to see the performance of the ropes where we will be monitoring the ropes and corals. [Wasini Coral Restoration Project Chairman.]

During the meeting with KMFRI and the Catchgreen project team in September, the team reported that the ropes have already taken the shape of the aquatic environment and that it may end up attracting more corals, a welcome development.

The work of KMFRI scientists in capacitating the locals with skills such as diving and knowledge about coral restoration empowering the locals was applauded by the local Chief.  

“I am glad to meet with KMFRI as they are like mentors. Through KMFRI, we can stop plastic pollution and protect the ocean health. When the donors leave, it’s difficult for the community to sustain the Project. The only means of raising money is to charge the tourists who come for snorkelling and diving to see the corals. Being the first people to test and use these ropes is very appreciated. After all the challenges, we still have better corals from trying diverse ways of moving forward. These ropes will make the restoration work easier”. 

The local team is doing everything possible to keep plastic away from their serene island. However, they have the challenge of transporting the bulky collected plastic from the island to the mainland for recycling and repurposing. Hopefully, using Biodolomer®Ocean ropes will also encourage more tourists to visit the area and contribute to the socioeconomic development of Wasini Village.

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