x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dugongs hide from the developers

Building along Abu Dhabi's coast is forcing the creature into calmer waters as experts fear for its future.

Abu Dhabi has an estimated population of 2,500 dugongs, along its coast. Australia has the largest population of the marine mammal. Above, 'Wuru' acquaints herself with the Mermaid Lagoon exhibit in Sydney.
Abu Dhabi has an estimated population of 2,500 dugongs, along its coast. Australia has the largest population of the marine mammal. Above, 'Wuru' acquaints herself with the Mermaid Lagoon exhibit in Sydney.

ABU DHABI // They are the gentlest of creatures, a key feature of the capital's sealife, but environmental experts fear that the dugong is being pushed into a corner by coastal development. While numbers of the large mammal have remained steady, surveys by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) have found that dugongs seem to be congregating in Abu Dhabi's marine protected areas and avoiding the rest of the emirate's waters.

In 2001, 65 per cent of dugongs lived in protected areas. The proportion is now 90 per cent. The agency's latest survey was carried out between January 17 and 22. Some of its findings were presented to the Conference on Biodiversity Conservation in the Arabian Peninsula, held in Sharjah. Dr Thabit Zahran al Abdessalaam, EAD's director of biodiversity, said that although the results of last month's survey were still being finalised, they confirmed trends spotted in another investigation last summer.

Large numbers of dugongs were seen in the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve and Al Yasat marine protected area. This showed the "usefulness of protected areas", but was also "a call to worry", said Dr al Abdessalaam. "Why have these dugongs decided to move to protected areas?" he said. "I wonder if we are not pushing them to a corner. "Development, dredging and land reclamation," were the largest threat to dugongs off the UAE, said Dr al Abdessalaam.

They were also in danger of boat strikes and, previously, from fishing nets and seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration, he added. Dugongs were listed as a species vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in its recent "red list" of threatened plants and animals. Shy, peaceful animals, they need to regularly swim to the surface to breathe. In Abu Dhabi, dugongs live in shallow coastal areas, covering 6,500 square km. With an estimated population of 2,500, the emirate has the world's second largest population. Australia has the most.

Because dugongs are migratory and not restricted to one area, the impact of threats is not immediately observed. "The biggest problem with the conservation of dugongs and turtles is the conservation of the habitats," said Dr al Abdessalaam. If Abu Dhabi's dugongs are to be preserved, the sea grass beds that the animals depend upon for food must be protected. Sea grass is very sensitive to changes in the water salinity, turbidity and temperature, so outflows from desalination plants and the accumulation of sediment from land reclamation can be extremely damaging.

Tourism and housing projects, industrial developments and electricity and desalination infrastructure all compete for space along Abu Dhabi's coastline and have negative impacts on coastal ecosystems. Nuclear facilities, which need vast amounts of water for cooling, may have an impact in the future if the sensitivities of delicate marine habitats are not considered. The two-day Sharjah conference involved experts from throughout Arabia, including the UAE, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

They discussed the status of rare species, such as the dugong and the houbara bustard, and ways that they can be protected or returned to the wild. vtodorova@thenational.ae