x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Abu Dhabi tries to save the dumpy 'lady of the sea'

Once mistaken for mermaids, these ancient inhabitants of the emirate's coastal waters are now considered natural treasures.

A dugong, also known as a sea cow, and cleaner fish graze together on a bed of seagrass.
A dugong, also known as a sea cow, and cleaner fish graze together on a bed of seagrass.

It's a little puzzling exactly how the shy, dumpy dugongs that graze in Abu Dhabi's warm coastal waters were once mistaken for mermaids. With their long snouts and tusks, dolphin-like tails and spatula-shaped flippers, the lumbering marine mammals can weigh up to 400kg. None of which would seem to befit the sirens of seafaring lore. Whereas fictional accounts of mermaids luring ships onto dangerous rocks were popular among ancient mariners, the emirate faces the very real problem of human settlement threatening the dugong herds in local waters.

As a species listed by the World Conservation Union as "vulnerable to extinction," the dugongs of Abu Dhabi are a national treasure, according to the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD). In fact, the emirate's shallow coastal waters are home to a dugong population second in number only to that in Australia. The species, whose name comes from the Malay term "duyung", meaning "lady of the sea," has been spotted in the channels around Abu Dhabi Island as well as within two kilometres of the Corniche.

Of the approximately 7,000 dugongs believed to live in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea, Abu Dhabi is home to about 40 per cent of them, according to EAD estimates. But pressures from urbanisation and human activities such as fishing and trawling, not to mention oil spills, are further putting the creatures in peril. So, the EAD's Marine Research Centre has embarked on conservation efforts to restore the population.

Next month will mark the first anniversary of the UAE becoming the first Arab country to sign a Memorandum of Understanding concerning the conservation and management of dugongs. The city's expansion along the coastal belt has encroached on the dugongs' habitat, and dredging has disturbed the seagrass beds, the mammal's only source of food, explained Thabit Zahran al Abdessalaam, the director of the marine biodiversity management sector at the EAD.

"Abu Dubai is attractive for dugongs as almost all the sea grass beds in the entire UAE are here," he said, adding that dugongs are protected under UAE law and anyone found to be harming them can be prosecuted. The seagrass diet has, unfortunately, restricted dugongs to the very shallow waters most intensively used by humans. And as seagrass has very little nutritional value, dugongs must consume large amounts of it - as much as 30kg in one day. Their grazing habits have earned them the nickname "camels of the sea".

The herbivorous sea creatures are close cousins of the manatee and belong to the order sirenia, named after the sirens of Greek legend. As mammals, dugongs must surface to breathe about every six minutes, but sightings are otherwise rare. In 1986, aerial surveys recorded 3,047 dugongs in Abu Dhabi's surrounding waters, according to the Marine Atlas Abu Dhabi. By 1999, the same year the UAE enacted a federal law forbidding the harvesting or harassment of dugongs, that population had fallen to 2,691.

Two years later, helicopters spotted 2,185 dugongs and a marine protected area in Marawah Island was declared to preserve a core habitat for the marine mammals as well as sea turtles and dolphins. The EAD is "leading the way in the western Indian Ocean" with a particularly proactive campaign to save the dugongs, said Dr Mark Beech, an archaeologist in the region who now works as the manager of Cultural Landscapes at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

He noted that the early seafaring settlers of Abu Dhabi have had a long-standing connection with the sea. As far back as 7,000 years ago, he said, dugongs were essential to the survival of inhabitants of the region. "We know that people were hunting dugongs more than 7,000 years ago, from archaeological remains along the islands of Abu Dhabi and from our excavations on Marawah," he said. "We found evidence of dugong bones in the forms of ribs and also shoulder blades - the preferred flippery bits on the front that they used to eat."

Until the 1980s, dugongs were actively hunted because they were considered a desirable source of cheap "red meat," but this practice was stopped by order of the rulers, who stated that only the dugongs accidentally entangled in fishing nets could be sold in the market. Long ago, they were a major source of protein for ancient Bedouin, Mr Beech said. "They were basically having barbecued dugongs - spareribs and shoulders of dugong meat," he said. "It's a protected species nowadays, but back then the Bedouin would make sandals from the hides and the tusks - the sort of canine teeth - were probably kept as trophies or amulets, but also quite good tools."

Mr Beech said dugong semen was once reputed by locals to have aphrodisiacal properties, "but it's all baloney". Online retailers offer so-called "dugong pearls" for more than £100 apiece, though these "pearls" are almost always just compressed rock salt. "It's a bit sad that some ... business is making money out of these beautiful creatures whereas they should be putting the money towards conservation, because they really are critically endangered," Mr Beech said.

Dugongs are very vulnerable to human threats such as oil spills and last year a team of field scientists found two dugongs trapped in an abandoned driftnet near Abu al Abyad Island. Boat traffic can also injure dugongs. It was not until the last decade, however, that scientists began collecting ecological data throughout the coastal and marine areas of Abu Dhabi. The Emirates Heritage Club - Abu Dhabi published its marine atlas in 2004, collecting anecdotal accounts from fishermen and divers who reported seeing fewer dugongs in the area over the years. Research teams for the marine atlas reported sightings within a few kilometres of Abu Dhabi City, with 72 per cent of all dugongs and 55 per cent of all green turtles and dolphins sighted within a 45-kilometre radius of Marawah island, which lies 100 kilometres to the west of the city.

Although dugongs are distributed in the coastal waters of more than 35 countries, the EAD's effort to save its dugong population is tied to the heritage of local people. With so much at stake, preserving the life of creatures that have lived in the Arabian Gulf for millions of years is seen as important for both present and future generations. mkwong@thenational.ae