Where McClanahan works, along Kenya's southern coast, fishing is small-scale -- as he calls it, "artisanal." Fishermen use sailboats and canoes instead of motorboats. They haul their catch in using nets, lines, spear guns and traps made from local materials. Many eat most of what they catch and rely on more than one job to make ends meet.
Part of McClanahan's job involves working with communities to adopt more sustainable fishing practices, like traps with small slits that allow juvenile fish to escape -- protecting the next-generation catch.
With climate change in the back of his mind, he's also working to identify reefs that may prove hardier than most in the face of rising temperatures because they have adapted to a wide range of water temperatures, or because they are located in areas fed by tidal, rather than wind-driven, currents.
"Some reefs are pretty much doomed by climate change, in my opinion. Others will probably struggle but get by," he said. "We talk to communities and say, 'This area has a high potential to survive climate change. This is a reef you might want to protect.'"
Some communities are more receptive than others. The tiny village of Mkwiro, perched on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, is one that has embraced conservation measures. The Kenyan government has established a national marine reserve nearby that allows fishing within its boundaries and has created a local tourism economy.
But there are already hints of a changing climate.
"Bleaching used to be an oddity," McClanahan said. "Now it's become a fairly regular thing. It's not
regular every year, but it occurs somewhere every year, more frequently than it used to. The Indian Ocean Dipole, a cyclical warming event, used to be a 10- to 12-year cycle at the beginning of the last century. Now it's two to four years. Winters are less extreme."
Studies suggest that efforts to create more sustainable fisheries and reduce existing stresses such as overfishing can only go so far in the face of a changing climate.
Marine-protected areas, a tool embraced by governments and conservationists, have been shown to increase the number and size of fish and keep corals thriving. But recent research has found those benefits can be overwhelmed by the effects of rising temperatures and changing weather patterns.
"Nobody wants to talk about mitigating CO2 emissions," said Sumaila. "It is easy, politically, to talk about adaptation. But ultimately, if we don't deal with the pumping of CO2, it's going to be tough to adapt -- even for the strong countries."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500