x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

UAE leads way in reef conservation

A new publication praises the Emirates for its 'strong and successful' efforts to look after its unique ecosystem, but much work remains to be done.

Healthy corals off Dibba. With about 22 per cent of its waters protected, the country is a front-runner in marine conservation but more needs to be done to reverse the decline of the area's coral reefs. Reuters
Healthy corals off Dibba. With about 22 per cent of its waters protected, the country is a front-runner in marine conservation but more needs to be done to reverse the decline of the area's coral reefs. Reuters

The UAE is taking a leading role in preserving the Arabian Gulf's coral reefs.

Not only are more than a fifth of its waters protected areas - compared with an Arabian Gulf-wide average of 7.8 per cent - the country is gaining plaudits for "strong and successful management" of these areas.

These were among the more upbeat findings of a recent focus on Arabian Gulf coral reefs published in the academic journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

"Coral Reefs of the Gulf: Past, Present and the Future of a Unique Ecosystem" looks at the challenges facing the region's corals, considers steps to protect them and identifies areas in need of research.

One of the papers, by scientists Hanneke Van Lavieren and Rebecca Klaus, found there were 173 marine protected areas in the region, covering 7.8 per cent of its marine area. However, only about a third of the protected areas were effectively managed.

The UAE is a leading nation in the region, with protected areas covering 22 per cent of its waters.

"With the exception of the Jebel Ali Marine Reserve which was impacted by coastal development a decade ago, management of most marine protected areas in the UAE has been strong and successful," said John Burt, assistant professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi, who co-edited the publication.

Another of the papers focuses on the dramatic decline of reefs in Bahrain, that were once home to some of the most extensive and diverse reefs in the region.

Due to a number of stress factors including land reclamation, dredging, contamination from industry, and the use of underwater explosives in oil and gas exploration, Bahrain's reefs have gone into considerable decline.

"The once extensive and diverse reefs of Bahrain are now a shadow of their former selves, with most reefs made up of eroding skeletons of once live reefs, with corals now covering less than 5 per cent of the reef area," said Dr Burt.

"It is a dramatic parable of what could happen elsewhere in the region if environmental regulation and management aren't well enforced."

Dr Burt said that, while the UAE was one of the leaders in the Arabian Gulf for establishing marine protected areas and initiating research on reefs and other marine habitats, more can be done to ensure the survival and health of its coral reefs.

"Development of a more cohesive Emirates-wide marine conservation and management framework for policy, regulation, and management would improve the conservation of UAE reefs, as would strengthening the legislative components to ensure that any activities in the marine environment can be well enforced when needed," he said.

With their ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions, Arabian Gulf coral reefs have attracted the attention of scientists worldwide, with the increase in interest demonstrated in the first of the 12 papers of the issue.

The paper shows that, out of 270 academic publications concerning coral reefs in the Arabian Gulf over the past 60 years, more than half were published in the last decade.

"The increase in research activity in recent years is a strong indicator of the growing interest from the international scientific community in the region's marine environment," said Dr Burt, who shared the editing of the special issue alongside David Feary, chancellor's postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Bernhard Riegl, associate director of the National Coral Reef Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

"However, more knowledge has not necessarily translated to better conservation. While it is a positive sign that the region's coral reefs are better understood, they are still in dramatic decline.

"The development of more local research capacity and educational programmes are needed to support the application of long-term marine environment management."