Six dugongs have been found dead on the Abu Dhabi coast – with environmental experts blaming illegal fishing practices for putting the protected species at risk.
The bodies of the creatures were found washed up from Al Silaa to Ghantoot, by Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) rangers who regularly patrol the waters of the emirate.
The mammals, affectionately known as sea cows due to them feeding on sea-grass, are believed to have drowned in unmanned and abandoned drift nets.
The discovery brings the total number of dugong deaths in the UAE this year to 20 – up from 15 on the same period in 2017.
It is believed the dugongs became ensnared in lengthy and illegal netting after necropsy results indicated the most probable cause of their death was drowning.
The environment agency has renewed its call for strict punishments over the use of so-called hiyali nets, which are banned under federal law and are easily lost at sea and can ensnare wildlife.
The agency has led crackdowns on rogue fishermen, with inspectors swooping on locations used by commercial and recreational fishing boats after the discovery of five dead dugongs on Saadiyat Public Beach in February.
“The Agency will continue to prioritise the protection of dugong habitats and ensure that enforcement of the laws continues to be applied strictly, in partnership with the Critical Infrastructure & Coastal Protection Authority (CICPA),” said Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, executive director of Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity at EAD.
“We strongly urge all fishermen to cast their nets mindfully, prudently and responsibly and fish in a sustainable manner – in line with our local and federal laws.”
EAD, which has ramped up its inspections recently, has the power to impose harsh fines to anyone found flouting the law.
First-time offenders can receive fines of up to Dh50,000 and a jail term term of at least three months, while second-time offenders can be issued fines of up to Dh100,000 as well as a prison term of not less than one year.
EAD has imposed over 40 fines for illegal fishing practices following violations found during inspections this year.
Dugongs, the only marine animals which are herbivores, spend their whole life in the sea, but cannot breathe underwater, so return to the surface for air every few minutes.
As a result they drown very quickly when entangled, said Arabella Willing, resident marine biologist and head of conservation at the Park Hyatt, Abu Dhabi.
“Fishing nets are hard to see at the best of times, but especially here in the Arabian Gulf where the sediment is fine and visibility is poor – especially after storms such as the ones we have just had,” Ms Willing said.
Abu Dhabi is home to the world’s second largest population of dugongs, with around 3,000 living in the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve alone. The Arabian Gulf and Red Sea host around 7,000 dugongs.
They have been protected under law in the UAE since 1999.
EAD has been studying dugongs living in Abu Dhabi’s waters since that time.
Since the start of the programme, EAD has investigated the deaths of 165 dugongs, the majority of which died due to suffocation as a result of becoming entangled in abandoned fishing nets.
Other causes of death included habitat loss, marine pollution and collisions with boats.
Most of the deaths were reported in the winter, during peak fishing season.