By Jaya Ramachandran
There is a glimmer of hope for Dugongs, also known as sea cows, and their seagrass habitats. The endangered species, which has been under threat by human activity such as entanglement in fishing gear, collision with boats and habitat loss, occurs across the East coast of Africa, South-East Asia, Pacific Islands and Australia.
Governments of 23 out of the 40 countries that are home to the Dugong have agreed in Abu Dhabi to work with the Dugong and seagrass research and conservation community to undertake more standardized research and monitoring activities as a prerequisite for devising tailored conservation measures in their own countries. They were guided by the conviction that better coordination of surveys and data exchange on Dugong populations between countries will improve transboundary protection.
March 13-14 gatherings – that included the third Meeting of Signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats (Dugong MOU), and a two-day expert workshop attended by 125 conservation practitioners from around the Indo-Pacific region which followed – were convened by Abu Dhabi office of the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and Total, a French multinational integrated oil and gas company and one of the seven “Supermajor” oil companies in the world.
The CMS Dugong MOU, the Secretariat of which is located at the Abu Dhabi office of the Convention on Migratory Species, aims to promote internationally coordinated actions to ensure the long-term survival of Dugongs and seagrass habitats throughout their range.
Protection of Dugongs, along with the conservation of seagrass meadows, which they feed upon, benefits marine biodiversity. Seagrass meadows are among the richest marine habitats on Earth, home to as many as 600 species of marine life and to hundreds of commercially valuable fishes, crustaceans and other invertebrates that feed millions of people worldwide – thus providing livelihoods and wellbeing. Seagrass is also very effective in capturing and storing carbon, an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change.
The Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and CMS availed of the opportunity to launch on March 13 a website that encourages volunteer conservationists around the world to share their findings and gain access to wildlife protection agencies’ databases.
CMS, administered by United Nations Environment (UNEP), is the only global biodiversity-related treaty specializing in the conservation and sustainable use of a wide array of terrestrial, aquatic and avian migratory species, their habitats and migration routes. Contracting Parties to CMS work individually and cooperatively to ensure a favourable conservation status for migratory species across their range. At present, there are 124 Parties to the Convention, including the UAE.
The website will provide a platform for communities in the 40 countries that are home to Dugongs to work together. The sharing of information on the website will help scientists and conservation groups to better assess the wellbeing of Dugong populations and figure out how best to help them.
“For example, some communities trying to assess Dugong populations in a certain area will find out from a different community around the world that they can save a lot of money by opting to ask fishermen instead of renting expensive aerial and drone technology,” said Helene Marsh, professor of environmental science at James Cook University in Australia, according to The National UAE newspaper.
Over the past 20 years, the conservation efforts of Abu Dhabi, which is home to the second-largest population of Dugongs, have led to the species’ thriving community in the wild today, UAE state news agency WAM reported.
“Our waters are home to more than 3,000 Dugongs. Because we recognised early on that any possible threat to seagrass beds poses a threat to Dugongs, our country’s Dugong population is stable,” said Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment.
The UAE’s ranking in the Marine Reserves Sub-Index in the Environmental Performance Index, published by Yale University, rose to the top spot in 2014 and last year from 33rd position in 2012.
“If we can also encourage fishing communities to adopt practices that don’t destroy seagrass and accidentally catch Dugongs, we will have helped to secure the future of Dugongs, the seagrass and those communities,” said Razan Al Mubarak, secretary general of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.
Against this backdrop, the newly launched Dugong & Seagrass Research Toolkit enables community groups, citizen scientists, conservation bodies and governments select the most appropriate standardized methods to research seagrass, Dugongs and the communities reliant on ecosystems for their livelihoods.
For example, learning about Dugong movements as well as seagrass-dependant fishery resources helps communities to maintain sustainable fisheries whilst contributing to the protection of important Dugong populations and improving livelihoods. The Dugong & Seagrass Research Toolkit will be promoted for use across the Dugong’s range, and can be adapted to other parts of the world where the other sirenian species, manatees, live.
Note: Read Loss of Seagrass Meadows Threatens their Dugong Denizens, an opinion piece by Dr. Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, and Dr. Bradnee Chambers, the Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.