Five dugongs, including a pregnant mother with a fully-developed calf, have washed up on Saadiyat beach over the past few weeks in what may be the single biggest fatality of one of Abu Dhabi’s most vulnerable species, according to the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.
The dugongs probably died by drowning after getting tangled in a illegal drift fishing net known as hiyali, according to the EAD, which has dispatched a team of experts to investigate the deaths and intensify monitoring in critical areas.
“This discovery is a harsh blow to one of Abu Dhabi’s most vulnerable species and it may be the biggest single die-off of dugongs recorded in a decade,” said Dr Shaikha Al Dhaheri, executive director of the terrestrial and marine biodiversity at EAD. “It once again affirms the vulnerability of these iconic species to human threats and the pressing need for fishermen to end irresponsible fishing practices.”
Abu Dhabi is home to the world’s second-largest population of dugongs, with about 3,000 found mostly in the waters around Bu Tinah Island, part of the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve. Dugongs, their foraging habitats and their migratory routes in the UAE have been protected under Federal Law No 23 and No 24 since 1999. The UAE is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species making it an international commitment to protect dugongs.
“EAD’s research has demonstrated that the majority of commercial and recreational fishermen are fully aware of the laws prohibiting the use of illegal nets and the protected status of dugongs in the UAE,” said Dr Al Dhaheri. “However, in spite of the regulations in place and the awareness being raised, many fishermen continue to use hiyali nets, because it is a particularly lucrative method of fishing.”
Commercial and recreational fishermen caught using illegal and banned fishing gear and methods face fines of up to Dh50,000 and/or an imprisonment term of not less than three months, while second-time offenders can receive fines of up to Dh100,000 and/or an imprisonment term of not less than one year.
“We will continue to prioritise the protection of dugong habitats and we will carry on ensuring that Abu Dhabi’s waters are managed in a way that protects all marine species, in partnership with the Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority,” said Dr Al Dhaheri. “However, as the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founder of the UAE, stressed, environmental protection is not a matter only for government officials. It is an issue that should concern us all. And so, we call on all fishermen to fish in a responsible way.
“In order to minimise mortality of dugongs during the winter season, we have already intensified our monitoring of critical areas within and outside marine protected areas and we have continued to meet regularly with fishermen calling on them not to use the illegal hiyali net, not to leave fishing nets unattended and to report the locations of any abandoned fishing nets to EAD.”
The EAD has investigated 153 dugong deaths since 1999, when it began monitoring the local population. The most common cause of death was suffocation from entanglement in illegal or abandoned fishing nets. Other causes of death included habitat loss, marine pollution and collisions with speeding boats. Most of the deaths were reported during the winter season, which coincides with an increase in the level of fishing activity.