© Daniel Floren / AP This sea turtle got caught in a fishing net off Diani, Kenya. The turtle was freed and released, but others have died. Daniel Floren, who runs a local diving school, says the U.S.-funded nets are destroying the very ecosystems that fishermen rely on.
Diani, Kenya - Plastic fishing nets - some bought for poor fishermen with American aid money - are tangling up whales and turtles off one of Africa's most popular beaches.

One recent victim was a huge dappled whaleshark that bled to death after its tail was cut off by fishermen unwilling to slash their nets to save it. In another case, divers risked their lives to free a pregnant, thrashing humpback whale entangled in a net last summer.

Both incidents occurred off Diani beach, which is popular with American and European tourists.

The fishermen have traditionally used hooks and hand lines to haul in their catch, which they then sold to hotels full of tourists. But the use of plastic nets has become increasingly common as growing populations have competed to catch shrinking supplies of fish, marine biologist David Obura said.

In 2003, USAID began a four-year project worth $575,000 to improve the lives of coastal communities. It worked on a project with a Kenyan government agency that included providing freezers for the fishermen to store their catch, along with boats and nets.

But the plastic nets are destroying the very ecosystems that the fishermen depend on and the tourists come to see, said Daniel Floren, who runs a local diving school.

Officials, experts and even the fishermen themselves acknowledge the nets are killing wildlife and coral.

"Without the reefs, there will be no diving. If we have nothing to show, I'll have to shut up shop," Floren said.

Project Aimed at Alleviating Poverty

The aim of the U.S. project was to help lift local people out of poverty, said Robert Buzzard, a USAID official involved in the initiative. But there were no studies to show how the kind of equipment supplied might affect the marine life.

"There weren't environmental assessments year on year," Buzzard acknowledged, saying USAID was "partly" responsible but also was dependent on local organizations to provide information.

The project did not provide the type of nets or long fishing lines - which catch fish without entangling other marine life - that fishermen requested, said Isaak Mwachala, head of one of the local fishermen's associations.

"When they were going to the shop where these nets are sold, they didn't bring us with them ... but when (the nets) are already here we can't refuse them," he said.

Buzzard said he did not have records of Mwachala's request, but said it was possible it had been made.

When Mwachala and his friends head out to sea, they often throw miles (kilometers) of plastic net onto the reef. The money they earn pays school fees for one man's child, hospital bills for another's. But along with the haul of colorful fish, the nets threaten turtles, whales, whalesharks and dugongs - large marine mammals related to manatees.

The fishermen, who say their old hook-and-line method never caught turtles or whales, practice conservation where they can.

Pregnant, Entangled Humpback Whale Freed

After Floren offered small payments last year, they brought him more than 70 turtles snarled in fishing nets over a two-month period. It was not possible to say how many of them were trapped in nets funded by USAID. He managed to cut free and release all but a dozen. But the pregnant, entangled humpback whale last September was much harder.

It took Floren and two other divers three tense hours to cut her free, all the while risking panicking the whale and becoming entangled in the mesh themselves if she suddenly fled to the deep sea. A rare dugong and another humpback mother whale were freed a month later in the northern town of Malindi.

The huge dappled whalesharks that migrate down the coast are also at risk. Volker Bassen, founder of the East African Whaleshark Trust, said about half a dozen have become entangled in the type of nets funded by USAID since he founded the trust four years ago.

He said most marine animals are trapped by nets left on the reefs overnight to catch lobsters for the tourists.

"The nets that USAID bought are made of nylon, which doesn't rot. Even if it washes away, it remains in the sea and continues to kill marine life for decades," he explained. "It turns into a ghost net."

Coral Killers

The nets are still destructive even if just used during the day and hauled in at night. The stones they use to weigh down the nets scrape over the delicate corals in time with the current, snagging the nets along the bottom and leaving scraps of blue nylon entangled in their wake. Onboard the boat bought with USAID funds, the men casually tossed chunks of the coral they'd pulled up over the side of the boat.

The fishermen interviewed by The Associated Press agreed that their livelihoods depended on preserving the seas and were interested in trying long lines if they were provided.

But Buzzard said USAID's involvement with the fishermen's group had been finished for a year and a half, and there were no plans to replace the nets. Buzzard said a colleague had been sent to speak to local conservationists who had complained about the nets.

"Those concerns are valid," he said. But "this project is finished ... Every project we do, we learn from."

Still, providing only one group of fishermen with new equipment would not be enough to save the marine life, said Obura, who specializes in studying coral reefs.

Huge Trawlers Overfishing Deeper Waters

In addition to the growing groups of poor fishermen crowding onto the reefs, huge European and Asian trawlers much further offshore are overfishing the deeper coastal waters, he said.

"The fishermen have the strong sense that there are other, richer fishermen out there raping and pillaging the seas and so why shouldn't they?" he said.

Fisherman Mohammed Khamis said the nets provided with USAID funds have increased the fishermen's average daily earnings from $4.50 to $7 - still less than a tourist pays for a fish fillet at an expensive hotel.

Khamis knew the nets could be destructive, but had three sets of school fees to pay totaling $460 a year and no other options for work in a country riddled with corruption and poverty. He says he could not afford to sacrifice his children's future for a turtle's.

"If someone has a family, they have to look for school fees, sickness, everything," he said. "We don't eat these turtles and we don't want to catch them but the extra fish is paying my children's school for their future."