Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Marsa Abu Dabbab مرسي أبو دباب

Satellite map of the Marsa Abu Dabbab - Google Earth
Dugongs (Dugong dugon) are peaceful and tranquil animals, they appear fat, but are fusiform, hydrodynamic, and highly muscular, reaching up to 3 metres in length and weighing up to 500 kg. They are exclusively bottom feeders, primary feeding on seagrass and aquatic vegetation they uproot by digging furrows in the seafloor with their snouts.  The species’ preferred habitats include warm and shallow coastal waters, with healthy ecosystems that support large amounts of vegetation.  As mammals, they regularly surface to breath and dive to feed, explore, rest or travel. The reproductive cycle is characterised by a long gestation period (13 months), after which the female will give birth to a single calf that will receive considerable parental care until it reaches sexual maturity (between age 8 and 18).  Dugongs are long living animals (50 years or more), but because of the long effort invested in their young, females give birth only a few times during their life span.

Dugongs Distribution - World Map by NASA

Dugongs have an extensive range spanning at least 37 countries and territories, and occur in association with coastal and island seagrass beds in the tropical and subtropical waters of the western Pacific and Indian Oceans (Marsh et al., 2001). Approximately 85,000 of the world’s dugongs are found in the inshore waters of northern Australia (Marsh & Lefebvre, 1994). This is likely to be at least three quarters of the global population, possibly considerably more. Elsewhere, populations are small and fragmented and in some areas, such as Mauritius, the Maldives and parts of Cambodia and Laos, dugongs have already disappeared (Bryceson, 1981; Marsh & Lefebvre, 1994; Marsh et al., 2001).

Dugongs in Egyptian Red Sea 
There is little information on dugong distribution and abundance along the African Red Sea. The situation of the Egyptian Red Sea is still relatively unknown as well.  However, several locations have become popular for the presence of resident individuals or groups, and as consequence attract hordes of tourists.  Moreover, as the coastline of Egypt is a site of extensive construction, habitat alteration and degradation are ongoing processes.  A series of community-based management initiatives should be undertaken to protect the species through the conservation of coastal sites where they exist or are likely to be present. (HEPCA).

Divers observing the Sea Cow

Conservation status and threats
Dugongs are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and classified globally as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ due to a population decline of at least 20% in the last 90 years (IUCN, 2000). Their habitat requirements and slow rate of reproduction render them particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic activities, and they are threatened by hunting, incidental net captures, pollution, coastal development and disease (Korrubel & Cockcroft, 1997; Marsh et al., 2001).

Local Fishermen after hunting a small sea cow - Hamed Gohar's Collection
An young fisherman cutting the Sea cow - Hamed Gohar's Collection
Tanzanian fisherman cutting the sea cow and getting ready to sell in the fish market

Habitat and diet
Dugongs feed primarily on seagrasses. Recent studies indicate that they prefer species high in nitrogen and low in fibre such as Halophile ovalis (Preen, 1995). They can manipulate seagrass beds to encourage regeneration of fast-growing pioneer species, which they prefer. Maintaining a highly palatable area of food has been coined ‘cultivation grazing’ (Preen, 1995). They generally uproot whole plants producing distinctive feeding trails. Like the hippopotamus, which supplies freshwater habitats with up to 50 kg of processed plant material a day, the dugong also recycles marine meadow nutrients (Dutton & Dutton, 1997), although the extent of this important ecological process remains to be quantified.

Marsa Abu Dabbab
Marsa Abu Dabbab on Nautical Chart

Abu Dabab Conservation initiative

Marsa Abu Dabab, located few kilometres north of Marsa Alam, is one of the most popular diving spots in the south and home to the majority of dugong sightings in the Red Sea. Furthermore, the Bay is also well known as a nesting site for sea turtles.  The sheltered and sandy bay of Abu Dabab offers many ideal conditions as a dugong habitat, including one of the largest patches of seagrass in the region, however its sustainability is at considerable risk from development, herbicidal run-off, chemical and biological pollution.   Dugongs and turtles are also vulnerable to collision with vessels and by catch in fishing nets. On top of it, the extreme tourist pressure in the bay has become a serious concern, with an unsustainable amount of snorkellers and divers enjoying the “Dugong bay” everyday looking for the sirenian.

Marsa Abu Dabbab 2010- Photo by. Ahmed F. Gad
Green Sea turtle in the Marsa Abu Dabbab - Photo by. Ahmed F. Gad

HEPCA announces Abu Dabab Conservation Initiative

Diving centres, environmental agencies, tourism businesses and government agencies and offices throughout the Red Sea are joining together to support the Abu Dabab Conservation Initiative, launched by Red Sea NGO, Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA). The Initiative focuses on the conservation of Marsa Abu Dabab, one of the most popular diving spots in the southern Red Sea, and the favoured habitat of native dugong and turtle species.

Never touch turtles

The sheltered, sandy bay (Marsa) of Abu Dabab offers many ideal conditions as a dugong habitat, including one of the largest patches of seagrass in the region. Dugongs are herbivores whose survival depends on their eating just two types of seagrass found here. Since the early 1990s, the dugong has been considered vulnerable to extinction on a global scale, and the species appears on the IUCN or World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Species. Just seven dugongs are thought to exist along the Red Sea coast from El Quseir to Sudan, with the majority of sightings occurring in the Abu Dabab area. The Bay is also well known as a nesting site for sea turtles. 

Marsa Abu Dabbab 2009 - Photo by. Ahmed F. Gad

The delicate habitat of Marsa Abu Dabab is at risk daily from dredging and filling for building developments, and herbicidal run-off from landscaping projects. Dugongs and turtles are also vulnerable to passing boats and fishing nets, as well as having their natural behaviour disturbed by the many hundreds of individuals who visit Abu Dabab to dive, snorkel and swim each day.

In January 2007, HEPCA and its partners met to discuss the urgent measures required to protect the unique environment of Abu Dabab and its inhabitants. A detailed action plan and proposed management strategy was produced that was delivered to all parties this May for consideration.

HEPCA's Signboards on Marsa Abu Dabbab - Photo by. Ahmed F. Gad

Amr Ali, Managing Director of HEPCA, says the plan represents a collaboration of an unprecedented kind: “This case is revolutionary for the Red Sea and the diving industry here. For once, everyone seems to have got their priorities right. This is not about money, about competition, or about being forced to act by law. Protecting the environment is everyone’s concern and for the first time, at Abu Dabab, we are all working together on this. This shows great promise for the future, and shows that the diving and tourism industry has the potential to be self-regulatory here.”

The primary actions from the first draft of the plan have already been taken. These include securing a new zoning line that prevents boat traffic inside the Bay, and the removal of moorings to stop overnight stays by safari boats. Safari and daily boats are no longer permitted to send divers and snorkellers inside the Bay. Access from the shore is allowed for the Bay as a whole, but is subject to strict control on numbers in order that the capacity of the site is not exceeded. From September 2007, no access is permitted within the total seagrass area. Marsa Abu Dabab will also be subject to active patrol by rangers who will enforce these necessary conservation measures.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering if you knew the seagrass species in the area, I have Halophila decipiens possibly in one of my photos from when I was there but I was wondering if you maybe had others or a better idea of the species type?