Exciting new tool for marine conservation: environmental DNA

Fish and other aquatic animals shed DNA into the surrounding water. This means that seawater is filled with the DNA of the animals living there, and this is known as environmental DNA (eDNA). Scientists have used environmental DNA to study a range of animals, from earlier eDNA studies in 2008 (e.g. on the invasive American Bullfrog), to more recent developments in targeting a whole range of fish species (e.g. metabarcoding by Miya et al. 2015).


We are testing whether environmental DNA, or the DNA shed from fish, can be used as a tool for marine conservation in South Africa. We are visiting the Two Oceans aquarium to start an amazing collaboration. Using their beautifully diverse tanks, we hope to show that the eDNA tool works for South African fish.


Watch this space. We have lots of exciting work to come. This tool could really make waves in the conservation world…

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Feeling creative on #internationalmuseumday

I have been constantly inspired by working at museums… and today on International Museum Day 2017 I’d like to share a video I created whilst working at Manchester Museum a couple of years ago.

I was working on a collection of crustaceans, but had the opportunity to explore so many other uses of the museum. One rainy afternoon in Manchester, I was fascinated to meet poet Helen Clare and see her creative process. She arrived at the museum with the aim of creating a poem, and I filmed her journey. Firstly, she made a list of words inspired by the museum. From these words, she chose the word ‘migration’. She then made a list of words related to the idea of migration. From this final list, she chose the word ‘belonging’. I took a walk around the museum with Helen, and she sought inspiration from the public display cases. We came back to the entomology department where she created a poem based on all her observations of migration and belonging in the museum. See the process in my video below, ending in Helen’s recital of her poem.




Celebrating #worldelephantday

It’s world elephant day today, and I’ve just returned from Tsavo East national park, Kenya. This park is home to the largest group of elephants in Kenya, with over 12,500 individuals, representing around one third of all elephants in the country.

It was breathtaking to see these animals. We saw them at the watering hole, on long walks in big groups and up close and personal when they crossed the roads in front of us. One large male chased our van away from his group, then stood in the middle of the road behind us – very intimidating when considering that he was much bigger than our van!

Beautiful, majestic animals and a lifetime experience! See some of my elephant videos from the trip on my YouTube channel and below:


Celebrating #MangroveActionDay with @MangroveProject

Here’s one of my photo entries for the MAP mangrove photo competition! This photo was taken at the Mikoko Pamoja book launch, where Mikoko Pamoja carbon funds earnt by the community were spent on boosting local education. You can enter the photography competition too by clicking here.

Mangroves are community

Mangroves are capable of storing a large amount of carbon, removing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it in the trees and soils. Conserving mangroves therefore helps us to fight climate change, and in south coast Kenya local villages involved in the Mikoko Pamoja project are conserving their mangroves, and in turn ‘selling’ the carbon that they store! This year, the community decided to spend its carbon earnings on school books for the local primary school. These books will change lives, giving children the opportunity to learn and grow, and the books are a fruit of the mangrove conservation work the community has carried out. Community conservation of mangroves is boosting education, and knowledge is power!


How does mangrove carbon offset work?


Coastal livelihood and mangroves

Coastal villages often heavily rely on fishing for livelihood, and also often have houses and buildings close to the shore. Areas of coast with mangrove forests benefit from the mangroves supporting large fisheries, and also protecting the shoreline from erosion and sedimentation. Although these benefits are significant to the local community, historically mangroves have been cut for firewood and construction poles as another source of livelihood. These cutting activities, when not managed sustainably, can lead to deforestation of the mangroves and loss of the ecosystem services that the mangroves provide (coastal protection and livelihood are just two examples of these services).


Fish catch from  a fisherman on Wasini Island, South Coast Kenya. Photograph by: Molly Czachur

Carbon in mangroves 

Here in South Kenya, mangroves are considered important for fisheries and coastal protection, but are also valued for their ability to take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and store it in the ecosystem, known as carbon sequestration. By sequestering carbon, mangroves are reducing the total CO2 in the atmosphere and positively combat global climate change compared to a scenario where the mangroves do not exist.

Loss of mangroves by cutting and overexploitation could contribute to an acceleration of global climate change. It is therefore of great interest to conserve these ecosystems that we now know are capable of storing large amounts of carbon.


Harvested wood to be sold for construction poles in Gazi village, Gazi Bay, South Coast Kenya. Photograph by: Molly Czachur

What solutions are there?

Carbon offset projects can be established for mangrove ecosystems, where avoided deforestation and planting activities are carried out to increase the area of mangrove forest in the offset project area compared to what would be there if the project didn’t carry out it’s activities. With the trees that are ‘saved’ from cutting, plus the new trees planted, the carbon offset project activities result in carbon being ‘added’ to the system (because more mangroves = more carbon). This added carbon, or extra carbon that is sequestered into the mangroves, can be sold to buyers as carbon credits.

Carbon credits are the calculated amount of carbon that is added to a system as a result of the offset project activities, and can be sold to any person who wants to positively impact the environment. Often, large companies with corporate social responsibility are required to balance their carbon footprint, and one way for them to counteract the amount of carbon they produce is by buying carbon credits. Similarly, an individual person who does a lot of carbon-producing activities, like flying, can decide to personally buy carbon credits to offset their own personal carbon footprint.


High spring tide in mangroves of Gazi village, Gazi Bay, South Coast Kenya. Photograph by: Molly Czachur

What about the local community?

For a carbon offset project to be successful, it has to be sustainable and have permanence. One key to achieving this is through working with the community, as has been proven in the success of the Mikoko Pamoja carbon offset project in Gazi Bay, south coast Kenya.

Mikoko Pamoja works closely with a community committee to meet its carbon offset project goals and activities. The local community are involved in regular monitoring of the mangrove offset project areas, and local people are educated about the importance of mangroves. Mikoko Pamoja sells carbon credits, then holds community barazas to decide as a community how the funds from carbon credits are spent. The local community are an integral part of the work of Mikoko pamoja, and they are supported through alternative livelihood projects to replace their previous livelihoods in the mangroves. These include terrestrial community wood lots and aquaculture ponds to provide wood and fish respectively.


Community baraza in Gazi village to discuss the recent funds received from the Mikoko Pamoja carbon offset project. Pictured standing is Salim Abdalla, Mikoko Pamoja project co-ordinator. Photograph by Molly Czachur

Sounds perfect! What now?

Coastal ecosystems are dynamic, are influenced by many factors and can be affected by certain climate change scenarios like sea level rise currently and in the near future. For this reason, it is important to continue scientific research of mangrove ecosystems, and build up our knowledge of the past and current ecosystem processes, to inform the management and continuation of the services that mangroves provide to us.

My work as a marine biologist involves working with a team of students and scientists to carry out research on the Gazi Bay coastal ecosystems, which can include mangroves, seagrass and more. We work at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), where I also work closely with Mikoko Pamoja staff, to continue the conservation of the Gazi Bay coastal ecosystems. Please subscribe to this blog, or follow me on Twitter @zoologymolly to keep updated on our study methods, project activities and results of our various studies, all from the perspective of me, Molly, an early career marine biologist from the UK! You can also follow Mikoko Pamoja on Twitter @mikoko_pamoja for more information!


Mikoko Pamoja staff and volunteers showing visiting carbon buyer (Carl Lindersvard from Zeromission) around the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) Gazi substation.


Measuring tree DBH with #mikokopamoja

Hundreds of Casaurina trees were planted in the villages of Gazi and Makongeni to provide an alternative livelihood for local people. These trees are fast growing and straight, ideal qualities for producing wood construction poles. This wood is hopefully going to provide enough income to reduce local harvesting of mangrove trees, which are often cut down and sold for construction poles and firewood.

Our initial task is to measure the diameter at breast height (DBH) of all the trees to give us an idea of how marketable the wood lots are. A student project will involve determining the local market price (both ‘price per pole’ and wholesale) and calculating how much these wood lots are worth to stakeholders of Mikoko Pamoja. 

I look forward to sharing the news of the success of these wood lots in the future!


Casuarina Planting at Gazi Primary School

7 years since the Gazi wood lots were planted, and this week we are measuring them to assess which trees are ready for harvest! Great to be a part of Mikoko Pamoja team carrying out this work!

Gazi Mangrove Project

Row of Children PlantingYesterday, 193 students at Gazi Primary School participated in planting nearly 300 Casuarina seedlings on school grounds.  These seedlings will supplement the 3,000 trees recently planted as part of the Gazi Mangrove Project.

The students learned that Casuarina trees are hard wood trees that can be used as a substitute for mangroves in building materials and fuel.  The children will be responsible for tending to the seedlings on campus, to ensure that they grow into healthy, hardy trees.

Here are some pictures from the day’s events.

Corner Planting

Girls with SeedlingsGirl and Boy PlantGirl Planting

Gazi Primary Students

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