How face masks are a threat to sea life

According to UN statistics, 80 per cent of marine debris are plastics

In Summary
  • Careless disposal of face masks along the sea shores endangers the lives of sea creature in Mombasa.
  • Mombasa county government is set to organise monthly and weekly clean up of public beaches to curb the menace.
Mombasa residents during a clean-up exercise along the sea shores
Clean up exercise Mombasa residents during a clean-up exercise along the sea shores
Image: Laban Waloga
Mombasa County Tourism Chief Officer Aisha Abdi during a press briefing in Mombasa
Mombasa County Tourism Chief Officer Aisha Abdi during a press briefing in Mombasa
Image: Laban Waloga

Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, face masks were a preserve of medics. 

However, the masks have now become an essential item worn by everyone to avert the spread of the virus, especially in countries where the majority of the population has not received vaccination against Covid-19, Kenya being one of them.

Although it is important in mitigating Covid spread and saving human life, the same face mask is suffocating the marine life at the Kenyan Coast.

Kenya’s coastline is dotted with pristine sandy beaches of Diani, Mombasa, Watamu and the Malindi stretch from Shimoni on the South Coast to Lamu in the North. 

However, the coastline is currently littered with plastic bottles and face masks, among other kinds of dirt brought by people who come to enjoy the ambience of the ocean.

According to marine and environment experts, the careless dumping of masks on the seashore is a great threat to both marine life and the birds.

Mombasa Beach Management Units chairperson Mercy Mghanga says face masks have a similar threat to plastics if they find their way into the ocean.

She says the masks dropped along the ocean line will definitely find their way into the deep seas.

“Face masks are like plastic, they do not decompose easily. If swept by the waves of the ocean into the deep seas, the turtles, fish, and other sea creatures might eat them, confusing them for food,” she explains.

According to Mghanga, the plants, seaweeds and grass that grow below the sea beds are usually green in colour. The sea creatures usually feed on these plants.

“The sea creatures might confuse these masks with the plants that are found under the sea bed. This, therefore, poses a great danger to sea life,” she says.

The chairperson says the masks will not only affect the animals that are found in water, but also the birds.

“A bird might have its legs or wings tied by the face masks,” she says.

The majority of the BMUs in Mombasa are involved in fishing to sustain their livelihoods.

Lack of fish in the ocean will affect the income of the thousands of fishermen at the Coast, according to Mghanga.

She also explained that the Coast is dependent on tourists, who come to enjoy and see marine life.

“If there are no marine animals, there will be no tourists coming to our marine parks, hence the ripple down effect will be negative,” she said.

Not only are the people at risk of Covid-19 when masks are disposed of carelessly, but they can also contract other diseases such as Tuberculosis.

“During beach clean-ups, someone might pick the mask for proper disposal. He or she might get infected if the previous owner was Covid-19 positive or even had other infections such as TB,” she said.


Study shows that plastic takes up to hundreds of years to fully decompose and some of them break down much quicker into tiny particles which in turn end up in the seafood we eat.

Sea turtles that ingest just 14 pieces of plastics increase their risk of death and the young ones are at high risk because they are not selective on what they eat.

Mghanga said the local community should work together with beach operators, tour leaders and other stakeholders to find solutions on how to control the menace.

“We should collaborate with environmentalists and CBOs who deal with conservation issues, we come together in creating awareness to the community and ensure that in every public beach, there are dustbins to dispose of the face masks and any other type of litter,” she said.

The Kenya Coast Tourists Association chairperson Victor Shitakha says the face masks that find their way into the ocean put the life of sea animals at risk.

Shitakha says Kenya is a nation that strongly advocates for the conservation of the environment and even went ahead and banned the use of plastics.

“However, we still have a challenge with people who dispose of face masks carelessly. We not only find masks along the shores, but even diapers and other things,” he says.

Shitakha says this is a big problem that needs to be addressed immediately.


According to United Nation statistics, at least 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris and 80 per cent is plastic.

When fish, seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals ingest the plastics, it causes suffocation, starvation and drowning of the animals.

Shitaka says there is a need for education through the relevant government departments to sensitise people to how to dispose of face masks in a proper way.

However, he says there is ongoing training of beach operators to help improve sanity at the beaches in Mombasa.

“For the first time beach operators have agreed to clean their places of work and I believe they will not allow people to dispose of litter in the area, something which will help in protecting the marine creatures from danger,” he says.

The KCTA chairperson says hotel managers have also agreed to work with them by placing bins in different areas along the shores, where people can dispose of their face masks after use.

“There is a need for more awareness of the use and disposal of face masks. We have to consider cleanliness for us to improve our tourism,” he says.


Marine debris is a major concern. Careless disposal of face masks makes the work of environmentalists even harder.

However, the Mombasa County government, under the leadership of Hassan Joho, has formed a task force that will help in coming up with interventions to help in the recovery of the sector.

Mombasa County Tourism Chief Officer Aisha Abdi says the task force is mandated to promote tourism recovery, ensure the sustainability of the tourism industry and health and safety components.

“On the health and safety component, we will be looking at adherence to Covid-19 protocols and at the same time we will be looking at the cleanliness of public beaches,” she says.

To protect the lives of marine creatures from the face masks ‘monster’, the county government plans to introduce weekly and monthly clean-ups on all the public beaches.

She says that the county government will work with hotels’ management and beach operators to carry out the cleaning campaigns.

On Monday, during World Tourism Day, over 300 beach operators graduated after undergoing three-month training in how to conduct their business and operations at the shores of the beaches.

Cleanliness was among the topics in the training.

Abdi says the Mombasa department of environment is also planning to place waste management facilities, especially on public beaches for disposal of plastic bottles and face masks.

“The environment department is in the process of procuring bins which will be used in disposing of face masks because this is a hazard and they cannot be mixed with other wastes,” she says.

Abdi said the county held an internal meeting and it was agreed that face masks are harmful and there is a need to segregate the waste.

“We treat face masks as part of medical waste that we normally get from our facilities, the waste management equipment will be placed in strategic areas on the beaches for easy accessibility by the public,” she said.

The Tourism department is working closely with the Environment department to ensure that waste is managed in a sustainable way because they are mandated to provide a safe and healthy environment to both human beings and sea creatures.

With the clean-up exercise of beaches in Mombasa, the marine creatures will be protected from the dangerous debris, which will, in turn, promote the tourism sector of the county.

Mombasa is the leading region in Kenya where both local and international tourists visit to enjoy the tourist sites, including the ocean and its creatures, hence the need to ensure the ocean and its creatures are protected.

Face masks are used as part of comprehensive strategy measures to suppress transmission of Covid-19 in the world.

Since the global outbreak of Covid-19, the World Health Organisation issued precautions such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, handwashing, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue in order to stay safe from Covid-19.

In Kenya, the first case of Covid-19 was reported in March last year, and the national government followed the WHO guidelines in ensuring its citizens remain safe.

It was not easy for the general public to adhere to the new guidelines of handwashing, wear a face mask and ensure social distance.

A surgical mask was then very expensive retailing at around Sh300, whereas the KN95 masks were going for about Sh1,500 per piece.

To adapt to the new trends, Kenyans came up with reusable cloth face masks.

However, by the end of last year, the prices of the three-ply surgical and KN95 masks had gone down drastically.

A three-ply face mask was going for about Sh20, whereas the KN95 mask was going for about Sh150. They are now retailing at Sh10 and Sh50 respectively.

-Edited by SKanyara

Over 300 beach operators during their graduation on World Tourism Day at Pride Inn Paradise in Mombasa
Beach operators Over 300 beach operators during their graduation on World Tourism Day at Pride Inn Paradise in Mombasa
Image: Aura Ruth
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