x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A census - this time for Musandam's fish

Volunteer divers took part in a conservation project to determine the numbers of fish off the Musandam coast. The results will be used to argue the need for a marine protected area.

"We have amazing corals and coral coverage and if you have protected areas with these corals then the number of fish will increase," said the marine biologist Rita Bento.

DUBAI // Volunteer divers taking part in a conservation expedition off the Musandam Peninsula have discovered that populations of fish belonging to the snapper family are showing signs of recovery after years of overfishing.

But the numbers of grouper, known locally as hammour, and the sweetlips family remain low on the coral reefs around the peninsula.

The divers from the UAE and other countries took part in a week-long dhow trip organised by Biosphere Expeditions, a UK non-profit company that runs conservation holidays all over the world. The expeditions give members of the public a chance to contribute to scientific research projects.

In the case of the Musandam trip, which took place last month, the data will be used to support a call for the establishment of marine protected areas in the waters surrounding the peninsula. The scientific work in the Strait of Hormuz was led by the Dubai marine biologist Rita Bento, from the Emirates Diving Association (EDA).

The data was collected in the north of Musandam using methods devised by the US conservation group Reef Check, which monitors the condition of coral worldwide. The findings are being collated by Ms Bento at the EDA's headquarters in Dubai and will eventually be sent to Reef Check to form part of their global figures.

"We've seen an increase this year in the number of snappers, it's a statistically significant increase compared with 2010, so that is good," she said. "But then you have the bad. The number of sweetlips is very low, it's almost zero. This is an indicator of overfishing, especially for this family."

The team divided the areas they were studying into sections measuring 20 metres by five metres, and then counted how many fish of each species there were per section.

"In 2009 we saw an average of two sweetlips per section and now there's one, so it's low," said Ms Bento. "The number of grouper is also very low, especially the big ones."

Grouper are classified by size, and can grow to a length of more than two metres.

"We have an average of one grouper per 20 square metres, and it should be much more than that," added Ms Bento. "And we never see ones bigger than 50cm. The average is 30cm, so that's a problem. Fishermen catch the bigger ones, and if you don't give them time to grow then the population falls."

Consumers are being urged to choose less threatened types of fish when they look at a restaurant menu or go shopping.

The Emirates Wildlife Society in association with the World Wildlife Fund is running a campaign called Choose Wisely - and two of the species that diners and shoppers are being urged to avoid because they are overfished are hammour and fersh, also known as painted sweetlips. Fish recommended by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi to choose instead include the orange spotted trevally and the two bar sea bream.

Ms Bento said fishermen were among those who would benefit if Biosphere Expeditions' call for marine protected areas off Musandam succeeded.

"We have amazing corals and coral coverage and if you have protected areas with these corals then the number of fish will increase," she added. "After three years the number of fish will increase inside the protected area and you'll have spillover, the fish that go outside, and the fishermen can catch them.

"So it would benefit the fishermen, the divers and the economy of Musandam as tourism would increase. We will propose it to the authorities so we can have a healthier reef."

Matthias Hammer, the founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, said talks were continuing about the possibility of establishing special areas where human activities would be restricted.

"Our preferred outcome is a marine protected area - and perhaps even Unesco world heritage site status - for parts of the Musandam Peninsula," he added. "But these things take time … that is, years."

csimpson@thenational.ae