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DNA Bar Codes Help Kenya Preserve Dwindling Fish Populations

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Kenya is building a DNA database of its marine species, such as sharks, rays, crustaceans and mollusks, to conserve its aquatic resources in the face of widespread illegal fishing.

The exercise involves harvesting species and cataloging them to help the government prosecute illegal fishing cases, Tanzanian newspaper The East African reported. Since the program started this year, Kenya has produced bar codes for about 115 species, 15 of which are commercially caught.

“Kenya has more than 6,000 commercial species and for years we could not claim any illegally harvested fish originated from the country,” Thomas Mkare, a senior research scientist at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), told The East African. “With this scientific exercise, we shall be able to claim our resources since even though fish look similar physically, each has special molecular identification which is associated with a certain region.”

The effort, which is expected to last several years, began after Francis O. Owino, newly appointed principal secretary of the State Department for Fisheries, Aquaculture and the Blue Economy, in March 2021 urged KMFRI scientists to enhance research as the country looked to stimulate its blue economy.

“The country demands of you to provide answers as researchers to take the country to the next level,” Owino said in a report by Science Africa. “We demand that you provide answers to the fishing challenges we face as a country.”

Once established, the reference library is expected to strengthen food security by contributing to sustainable harvesting. Through the database, fish sold anywhere in the world can be traced back to Kenyan waters using their unique DNA identifiers.

Kenya’s marine resources are in decline due to an influx of foreign industrial trawlers, including those from China. Analysts say the COVID-19 pandemic also spurred unemployed Kenyans to engage in illegal fishing for income.

A report compiled by Global Fishing Watch revealed that 230 fishing trawlers operated off Kenya between May and August 2021. Many of them were owned by companies in China and Italy, Africanews reported.

China is the world’s worst illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing offender, according to the IUU Fishing Index. In October 2021, Kenya revoked fishing licenses to six Chinese trawlers after Kenyan fishermen complained of mistreatment by Chinese crew members while employed to work on their vessels.

In 2019, Kenya’s annual fish production was 146,687 tons, far below its potential of 350,000 tons, Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya said in February 2021, when the country commissioned three new boats to help artisanal fishermen go farther out to sea.

“Our marine fisheries have the potential to considerably enhance the socio-economic development of our country by tapping into its huge aquatic resources,” Munya told Kenyan newspaper Business Daily. “The new boats are meant to enable our fishermen to exploit fisheries resources in deep waters.”

Declining fish populations are a regional issue.

Due to overfishing, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania are running out of fish, according to a 2020 paper published by Marine Ecology Progress. The study showed that 70% of the region’s reefs have fish stocks too low to produce the maximum fisheries yields.

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