The treasures of our seas have lost their best advocate

Learning to appreciate the healing power of aquatic life before its too late.

Most of you don't know it yet, but UAE residents are about to suffer a massive loss. My family, and many others, has for some time appreciated a treasure trove that we discovered somewhere along the al Khan beach in Sharjah. Its gifts came in the form of a marine biologist, Kerwin Porter.

Never have I met anyone who oozed such enthusiasm for everything water-related. Dr Porter is a man who loves all creatures and plants that inhabit the sea. The smell of fish tickles his nose and the taste of salt is more than just seasoning for his favourite dish. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of fish, the antibiotic elements of the sea, the harmful effects of pollution, as well the dangers of over-fishing. I think he's turned my two girls into mini marine biologists.

Dr Porter, the curator at the Sharjah Aquarium, once told me that despite coming from a family of doctors, he chose not to follow in their footsteps, opting for the life aquatic. His closeness to the medical field, however, has instilled in him a fascination with the potential medicinal powers of sea-life. Luckily, as he has taught my family and many others, these can be found in the waters surrounding Sharjah.

Every Saturday, the Sharjah Aquarium offers an educational programme called Underwater with Kerwin Porter. Attending these programmes, I learned that the Arabian Gulf, which faces the aquarium, is home to an abundance of fish, turtles, sea horses and other animals, that unwittingly contribute to the world of healing.

Many of these sea creatures create their own forms of antibodies that help to protect them against the carcinogens produced by pollution. There are some others that have venoms that can be used in the production of medicines called bioactive compounds. Sea sponges, for example, are used to make a medicine that treats HIV. And interestingly, invertebrates, which lack immune responses such as the white blood cells humans have, use chemicals to fight off pathogens, many of which are being tested to for use in all sorts of medical treatments.

Dr Porter also revealed a deadly beauty found on our beaches. It's a poisonous creature that lives in those lovely little spiral seashells that kids love to collect. The conical mollusk, or sea snail, is luckily long gone by the time the shells wash up on our beaches. Now the snail is currently being studied to find a possible treatment for brain damage. Scientists at the University of Utah found that the venom that these creatures, genus Conus, possess, has qualities that can help protect the brain and heart.

The curator's biggest peeves are, not surprisingly, beach pollution and littering. "We found a dead dolphin and its stomach was filled with five plastic bags," Dr Porter laments. He also worries about how pollution is both harming the animals and affecting the healing properties of the sea. As plastic breaks down, it releases chemicals that harm fish and can reduce the healing properties of the water.

Dr Porter's infectious enthusiasm has captured the hearts of children who enjoy his discussions about the kingdom of the sea but he has also helped adults understand better what they can do.

Dr Porter has also been an advocate of safe fishing and expressed fears about over-fishing of species such as the UAE's national fish, the hamour, and sherri, long before their prices began to rise astronomically at the market. He taught my family, for one, how to choose wisely when shopping for fish by using a pocket flipbook available at the Sharjah Aquarium and published by the Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), that shows which fish are at most risk from over-fishing or near depletion.

Just one session with Dr Porter is equivalent to a series of seminars on marine life. Unfortunately, I recently found out that he will be leaving the Sharjah Aquarium at the end of this month. It is a major loss for all of us who want to know more about our local aquatic environment.

It now falls upon all of us, big and small, who continue to be fascinated by the sea, to share the knowledge that Dr Porter shared with us.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist who divides her time between the US and UAE