Kenya is building a DNA database of its marine species to conserve its sea resources amid widespread illegal fishing. The exercise involves harvesting species and cataloging them to help the government prosecute illegal fishing cases. Since the program started in 2022, Kenya has produced bar codes for about 115 species, including sharks, rays, crustaceans and mollusks.
“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, 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 project, 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 institute 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 declining due to an influx of foreign industrial trawlers, including those from China. Analysts say the COVID-19 pandemic also spurred unemployed people to turn to 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.