Special report: Gulf coasts require long-term protection efforts, scientists say

Study of 173 marine protected areas in the Gulf reveals many are ineffective.

A scientist collects samples from a coral reef in Abu Dhabi, which scientists say need more protection. Courtesy John Burt
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Human activites are compromising efforts being made to protect and conserve Gulf coastal areas. A report has dinicated that despite there being 173 marine protected areas in the Gulf, many are ineffective and offer little protection to the endangered species. Such findings have lead scientists to warn against the disappearance of coral reefs in our lifetime unless action is taken soon. The Environment Agency - Abu Dhab- (EAD) plans to increase the percentage of protected marine areas in the capital to 14 per cent by 2019, in attempts to combat depleting natural habitats and species.



1- Report indicates long-term plans needed for Gulf marine protection

2- Scientists warn against disappearing Gulf coral reefs

3- Abu Dhabi environment agency to increase marine protected areas


Report indicates long-term plans needed for Gulf marine protection

ABU DHABI // The UAE and other Gulf countries will benefit from a detailed assessment of how effective protected marine areas are in preserving valuable habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds.

Established before the onset of a development boom that has seen the infilling of hundreds of kilometres of coastal areas to create more land, many protected areas have been compromised by human activities nearby, said Hanneke Van Lavieren, a coastal management consultant at United Nations University.

“A lot of the marine protected areas here are small and are close to shore, not all of them but a lot of them, so they are really vulnerable to all the impacts from development and I would argue that a lot of them are lost,” said Ms Lavieren. “If there is no more viable population of the reef or anything to protect - which I can imagine close to some of these dredging activities there is not much left to protect - why not move them to some area where it makes more sense.”

The Dutch researcher spoke on the sidelines of a conference on coral reefs organised by New York University - Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

“The opportunity is to think of redesigning, replacement,” she said, adding that any such decisions should be based on detailed on-site assessments.

A broad evaluation of 173 marine protected areas in the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran, carried out by Ms Lavieren and Rebecca Klaus showed many were ineffective and offered little de-facto protection to endangered species and habitats.

In 2013, when the study was carried out, only 64 of the 173 areas were officially designated as such. The majority were only being proposed for protected status.

In addition, based on questionnaires that the scientists sent to evaluate how effectively protected areas were managed, it emerged that only a small minority had any management plans in place at all.

“When you establish a marine protected area besides the legislation, which most of them have and which is a good thing...the first step that you need to do is a very clear management plant,” said Ms Van Lavieren. “It is a plan on how you are going to achieve the objectives of the marine protected area.”

On the basis of this, authorities can then establish short-term operational plans to establish clear actions that need to be taken as well as setting budgets. From data collected from 45 protected areas, only two had clear management plans, said Ms Van Lavieren.

“To be very honest, what it means to me is that...a lot of the marine protected areas here have been selected maybe in a sensible way, the initial idea was great and maybe it was based on good data, but after actually drawing the line and getting it through legislation, that is it,” she said. “It is really what we call a paper park.”

Dr John Burt, associate professor of biology and head of the Marine Biology Laboratory at NYUAD and the organiser of the conference, said he agrees with the study’s findings.

When it comes to Abu Dhabi, however, there are good examples such as the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, which has been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and is one of the largest marine protected areas in the region.

“That is a very useful, large protected area where there is no fishing activities, no industrial activities and so on,” said Dr Burt, who added that there are other important areas that currently have no protection. “There are a lot of other areas along our coastline that are not marine protected areas that I would consider highly critical and highly important marine habitat.”

Among them is the reef in Ras Ghanada, which has the highest diversity of coral species in Abu Dhabi and near which the new Khalifa Port was built. There are also valuable reefs around Delma Island which may in future be impacted from tourism development if no protection measures are taken now. Closer to the capital, there is vibrant coral reef off Saadiyat Island, which is off bounds for fishermen but whose proximity to shore “does it put it at risk of other human pressures” such as coastal development on the North eastern end of the island. The reef is also attracting attention from divers and other water sport enthusiasts with some boats already causing damage by anchoring on the coral.

“For me personally, as a scientist, I see Saadiyat’s reef as a valuable resource that we should be using for eco tourism...but that needs to be heavily managed,” said Dr Burt. “Tourism pressure is one of the leading causes of reef degradation in coastal areas because you get a lot of people coming in [to dive] and they start damaging reefs with their fins and when you start breaking up the corals with fins and anchors for example then fish populations go down.”


Scientists warn against disappearing Gulf coral reefs

ABU DHABI // Coral reefs could disappear from the Gulf within our lifetime unless action is taken soon, a leading scientist has warned.

Professor Charles Sheppard from the University of Warwick in the UK said scientists know exactly how rapid development along the coast, dredging activities, overfishing and pollution is causing the loss of reef habitats all over the world.

Addressed an audience of marine scientists and conservationists at a scientific conference organised by New York University - Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), Prof Sheppard said he wanted to get across the point that in the natural world “everything has a synergy, everything interacts”.

“You will not withstand four or five diseases if you get them at once - measles, hooping cough, influenza, malaria. So if you have warming - fine, you may call this measles, if you have overfishing and algae is encouraged and you have lots of sediment and you have industrial pollution from a factory, all these are equivalent to each of the different impacts all happening at the same time,” he said.

In the Gulf, on average three quarters of coral reefs have already been lost. “Coastal construction is done in a way which is not careful enough,” said is the main culprit said Prof Sheppard, adding that rather than building out to sea, developers could bring the sea in as has been done in Kuwait, for example.

“If you build out to see all time you destroy the productive habitat,” he said. “There is plenty of land.

“The only thing that is clear is that the rate of deterioration is fast enough that in your lifetime, certainly, you will see a collapse of the Gulf unless something changes,” said Prof Sheppard.

Climate change is set to add an additional burden to reefs, especially in the Gulf where many coral species live on the threshold of tolerance for temperature and salinity.

A relatively less discussed expected impact is acidification as more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed by water bodies. As gases dissolve at higher rates in cold water, the earliest effects of this are already noticed in Polar regions. Overall the average pH [a measure of acidity] of the ocean has gone done by 0.1 since the start of the Industrial Revolution, increasing in acidity. That equates a 30 per cent increase in hydrogen ions or acidity, said Prof Sheppard. The increasing acidity limits the growth of calcareous algae produce the hard skeletons of corals.

“The algae binds the reef together in a very important way and some of those are very susceptible to a drop in pH, increase in acidity,” he said.


Abu Dhabi environment agency to increase marine protected areas

ABU DHABI // Four new marine areas in Abu Dhabi have been proposed for protected status by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD).

While currently 13.2 per cent of the emirate’s marine area is protected, the EAD plans to increase the share to 14 per cent by 2019, said Dr Shaikha Al Dhaheri, executive director of the terrestrial and marine biodiversity sector of the agency.

The plans call for the establishment of marine protected areas in Ras Ghanada, which is situated near the border with Dubai and is home to the most diverse stretch of reef in Abu Dhabi.

Another marine protected area is proposed for Bul Syayeef, which covers 282 square kilometres to the west of the capital and includes shallow coastal waters, intertidal areas and islands. It has been proposed for protection since 2009.

There are also plans to establish a marine national park in the waters off Saadiyat Island in the capital, as well as a park to protect coastal mangroves.

Currently, Abu Dhabi has two marine protected areas - the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve which covers a territory of 4,255 square kilometres, and the Al Yasat Marine Protected Area, which covers a territory of 2,046 square kilometres. Both areas have established management and operational plans, said Dr Al Dhaheri.

The two areas are patrolled by rangers to ensure there is no prohibited activities carried in them. They are zoned so that some fishing, regulated for gear and season, is allowed in some parts, while roughly a quarter of the territory of the two areas is off limits for fishermen.

Dr Al Dhaheri said that the two areas are managed effectively and are reaching their objectives.

“The main objectives of the marine protected areas in Abu Dhabi are to conserve the natural habitats and wild species,” she said. “Dugongs and turtles show stable populations in the last 10 years, due to conservation and maintenance of their foraging and reproduction habitats.”

The National also sent questions to authorities in Dubai and Sharjah but no one offered comments.