Citizen science data is helping researchers in the UAE to understand marine life in the region.
Scientists have compiled sightings of dolphins, porpoises and even whales from members of the public in the Arabian Gulf between 2012 and 2019 through the UAE Dolphin Project Initiative.
Now efforts are being stepped up to encourage more people to scour the seas.
Dr Ada Natoli is assistant professor at Zayed University, founder and director of the UAE Dolphin Project Initiative and first author of the paper in Marine Mammal Science.
She said reports from the public proved invaluable if methodically recorded and verified by researchers.
The public can report their sightings at www.uaedolphinproject.org, adding the date, time, location and, if possible, visual proof.
Important findings uncovered
The study indicates that the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin or Sousa plumbea prefers inshore waters, a concern given the amount of coastal development.
Classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “threatened – endangered”, this species accounted for 45 per cent of the 1,103 verified sightings.
“They’re clearly narrow in their habitat preference – very much coastal waters, frequently seen within a few hundred metres of the shore,” Dr Natoli said.
“Sousa [plumbea] is a species that is more affected by human activity and therefore is in more danger of declining.
“If we want this species to keep occurring in the waters off Dubai and Abu Dhabi cities, urgent measures need to be implemented to limit disturbance and habitat destruction.”
Boat traffic, fishing, land reclamation, oil and gas activity and port construction may all disturb UAE nearshore areas.
Dr Natoli said these small cetaceans were more abundant in UAE waters than other countries with similar levels of development and human activity.
There may be a lag between when development takes place and when cetacean numbers are affected.
About half of sightings were of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops aduncus, which is about the same size as the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin and has similar food needs.
Classified by the IUCN as “near threatened”, it was spotted further away from the coast more often, so may be less affected by coastal development.
About two per cent of the citizen science observations were of the Indo-Pacific finless porpoise, Neophocaena phocaenoides, which the IUCN classifies as “threatened – vulnerable”.
Call to double down on measures to safeguard dolphins
The new paper was co-authored by Dr Andre Moura, of the Museum and Institute of Zoology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Gdansk, Poland, and Dr Neftali Sillero, of the University of Porto, Portugal.
A key measure to protect dolphins and porpoises is the introduction of marine protected areas, which restrict activity that could harm wildlife.
MPAs cover 13.45 per cent of Abu Dhabi waters, but because dolphins and porpoises cover large distances, may not protect the creatures across their full range.
Dr Bruno Diaz Lopez, chief biologist and director of Spain’s Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute, said the MPAs in Abu Dhabi waters were valuable, but larger reserves would offer greater benefits.
“The ideal would be if the countries could reach particular agreements … to create transnational protected areas,” he said.
More research still required
Dr Diaz Lopez was not connected to the citizen science paper, but has researched cetaceans off the UAE and recently co-authored a study on their presence in Saudi Arabian waters. It found the humpback dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin were among the most abundant cetaceans there.
“It’s important to obtain more data … to have better information for the conservation of these species. It’s important to preserve them and to take further measures,” he said.
“The creation and modification of marine protected areas is one of the main future solutions for these species.”
The citizen science project yielded what Dr Natoli described as “really surprising” reports of less regular species, including a humpback whale mother and calf sighted in UAE Gulf waters for the first time.
These are likely to belong to the Arabian Sea humpback whale population, which is genetically distinct and unique among humpback whales in not migrating, and is considered endangered, with an estimated population size of fewer than 100.
The Arabian Gulf is thought to have been part of the historic range of this population.
Public urged to get involved
The researchers plan to resume their campaign to encourage people to report cetacean sightings off the UAE. Since February, they have been conducting boat-based surveys themselves in UAE waters.
In addition, acoustic monitoring devices have been used to record cetaceans off the Dubai coast, with the first results likely to be available by the end of this year.