Working Hand in Hand With Communities in a Marine Climate Sanctuary

Blog 14 Feb 2022 by Haley Williams
WCS Tanzania’s Marine Program Director Jean Mensa on using MERMAID to make decades of coral reef data accessible online, and how Tanzania's globally important climate sanctuary presents an opportunity to support livelihoods and protect coastal biodiversity.

Jean, you’re one of MERMAID’s newest users, and are also in the lucky position of having inherited decades’ worth of coral reef ecosystem data when you moved into this role in Tanzania. What has it been like getting started with MERMAID, and working in one of the world’s marine climate strongholds?

WCS  and partners have been collecting data on East Africa’s coral reefs for over 20 years. Since I joined WCS Tanzania about a year and a half ago, we have started using MERMAID to collate all of this information.

These data are hugely important for Tanzania, and provide scientific evidence of field observations. Coral reefs are hugely important for local communities, and most of Tanzania’s reefs are fished - in some cases intensely. WCS is working together with coastal communities, mainland and Zanzibari Governments to  support management and conservation of the nation’s reefs, thus safeguarding livelihoods and marine biodiversity. This work requires data to understand what the current status is, identify needs for improvement, and track the impact of management and conservation activities. The MERMAID platform provides a way to integrate coral reef data, generate and share quick and easy graphics on the extent and status of reefs.

These graphics help us communicate data to communities, highlighting the linkages between reef health and human activities.  Community members participate in reef monitoring with WCS, and field trips to different sites enable them to experience the difference between protected and overly exploited reefs. Being involved in both monitoring and data sharing means community representatives understand the issues and engage in problem solving. The participants are then able to share insights with their broader community to further explain and motivate people to engage in conservation efforts.

How do you approach working in this area differently, taking into account how special this region is in the fight against climate change?

The Pemba Channel in East Africa has been identified as a marine climate sanctuary - where deeper, cooler waters are helping to protect coral reefs from bleaching events. These occur when water temperatures rise and are becoming increasingly frequent around the world due to human induced climate change. Because of the unique conditions in this area, if its reefs are well managed, they stand a higher chance than many of surviving into the future. Tanzania thus sits in a place of opportunity and its reefs could be a model of sustainable conservation for the world.

When you get to some of these reefs, it’s something you can feel - it’s a different kind of place. On Pemba Island for example, you go in the water and you see these deep reefs with high coral cover and biodiversity, with numerous fish and invertebrates, in a thriving ecosystem. Our goal is to provide support to ensure healthy reefs are sustained and damaged reefs are able to recover.

Do you have any advice for users newly coming to the platform, or for anyone thinking about how they or their institution can use MERMAID?

Scientists come and go, programs come and go, NGOs come and go, but what should always remain is the data, the knowledge.

One of the benefits of working in the Western Indian Ocean is that WCS has such long-term insight from decades of coral reef data collection. This research has been conducted at numerous sites along the Tanzanian mainland and Zanzibar coasts and is an amazing legacy to be able to work with. When I arrived in Tanzania, having this repository of data to help me do my job made a world of difference.

MERMAID provides a platform to store and compile reef data from multiple sources, while allowing users to decide what information is shared and what is private. It enables the generation of quick data summaries without extensive technical skills and safeguards data for access by future researchers.

MERMAID is the tool that is going to allow WCS and other NGOs and governments to do this work in a more systematic and structured way - instead of putting a bunch of data that is useful in one report, and then forgetting it somewhere, we now have a bunch of information that we can use to monitor how these ecosystems are doing and evolving in time. It’s as much the tool that is important as it is the sort of movement around it. You really need to have a convergence of people using the same tool as a repository for data collections for years to come.

How do you see reef monitoring data benefitting marine conservation in Tanzania, and the lives  of communities who rely on the region’s climate-resilient coral reefs?

Given Tanzania’s climate resilient reefs, there’s an opportunity to really support sustainable management of marine ecosystems that contributes to the economy, human wellbeing, and ecological integrity.

What I hope to see here is a combination of protection and sustainable management practices so that some reefs are fully protected - helping replenish fish stocks in surrounding areas, and some are sustainably fished. This will mean the region’s marine ecosystem has long term resilience to threats.

Tanzania has a network of government designated marine protected areas with different usage zones, in addition to which, some communities are embracing local fisheries closures. It is important to ensure that all these sites are supported and perhaps expanded as opportunities arise as part of the national marine management system. MERMAID helps meet the need for data-based management approaches with clear objectives, which can be enhanced by improved control and surveillance and supporting communities in management. Marine protected areas (MPAs) with highly biodiverse reefs also present tourism opportunities for businesses and local communities to benefit from economically.

In an ideal scenario, marine protected areas support sustainable community fishing, marine biodiversity conservation and ecotourism – bringing economic return for businesses, social benefits for communities and protection for coral reefs all in one place. Tanzania already has some successful examples of this, but there is still work to be done to extend this model more broadly, ensuring more people benefit and that Tanzania’s natural heritage is better protected for generations to come.


Jean Mensa is the Marine Program Director for WCS Tanzania, and is based in Stonetown Zanzibar. You can follow the team’s work @WCS_Tanzania