Lessons From Diving with Whale Sharks

Published on: July, 21st 2011 by Keith Addis, President of the board of directors at Oceana, Huffington Post – Lessons From Diving With Whale Sharks.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been side by side with hundreds of the biggest fish on Earth – Whale Sharks.

I’ve just returned from an incredible adventure in Cancun, Mexico, where every summer hundreds of these majestic giants gather under the full moon to feed on billions of fish eggs.

Whale shark Tofo MozambiqueI was in Belize a year ago where we encountered two Whale Sharks, but it was absolutely amazing to be swimming in the middle of an estimated 300 whale sharks within about a one-square mile area. It’s a deeply spiritual experience to be so close to these massive, domino-patterned leviathans, often flanked by giant manta rays.

Observing these spectacular animals in the wild is a wake-up call for us all that sharks around the world, including these giants, need our help. Sharks are being hunted ferociously for their fins, primarily for shark fin soup. Millions are inhumanely killed every year, the result being that many species are now threatened with extinction.

As apex predators, sharks play a vital role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems everywhere. Sharks are slow-growing, late-maturing, long-lived and give birth to very few offspring during their life cycles, making them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation.

Without sharks, the ocean can and will get out of balance quickly, as was the case off the coast of North Carolina. According to a study published in Science Magazine by the late Dr. Ransom Myers, the disappearance of sharks there led to an explosion in the population of rays, which have subsequently wiped out virtually all the bay scallop fisheries — and the fishermen whose livelihoods had depended on the health and sustainability of this resource for over a century.

The good news is that the United States has made great headway in shark conservation in recent months. At the end of 2010, Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act, which prevents shark finning in U.S. waters.

But while shark finning is illegal in the U.S., current federal laws banning shark finning do not adequately address the issue of the shark fin trade. As a result, fins are being imported to the U.S. from countries with limited to zero shark protections in place. Legislation banning the sale and possession of shark fins passed recently in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Guam and is pending in California.

I’m really hoping that California follows the lead of its neighbors. Ending the trade of shark fins in the state would continue our country’s reputation as a leader in shark conservation and send a signal to the world that shark fins belong on a shark’s body, not in soup.

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Saving Egypt’s bountiful marine life

Published on: June, 2 2011 by Mohamed El Hebeishy, Politics – Egypt – Ahram Online Saving Egypt’s bountiful marine life .

Coral reef in the Red Sea imageA local NGO is attempting to spread awareness of the long term damage to the Red Sea’s eco-system before the damage is irreversible.

A divers’ Mecca, the Red Sea is a unique eco-system that generates millions in tourist revenues, but are we doing what it takes to ensure its long-term sustainability?

It is hard to come across an avid diver who doesn’t dream of diving in the Red Sea. Colourful corals, a multitude of different fish species, a number of sunken shipwrecks and a couple of Marine Megafauna make it an underwater Eden.

“Egypt is privileged with its Red Sea, a one-of-a-kind environment that is facing monumental issues. The Red Sea is in danger,” affirmed Amr Ali, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).

A local NGO that focuses on the protection and conservation of the Red Sea environment, HEPCA took off in 1992 when a group of 12 dive operators undertook the mooring system initiative. Boats often use anchors to moor; a method that causes substantial damage to the reef. As an alternative, a buoy-based mooring system was brought to the table. A floating buoy attached to a permanent fixture in the seabed, eliminating the need for anchors. As a first wave, HEPCA installed 100 buoys in different locations along the Egyptian Red Sea coast. Today, HEPCA is taking its mooring knowledge to neighbouring countries.

For years, Egypt has been adapting “the more the merrier” concept when it came to tourism development. The core of the problem is not only in the sheer number of hotels and resorts that now dot the Red Sea coast, but rather in the environmental repercussions that couple the rapid urbanisation.

Take Marsa Alam for example. During the past decade, the small Red Sea town witnessed a tourism boom. Even before all the construction was complete, solid waste was already a prevailing problem ripping through the local environment right, left, and centre.

“Solid waste is an issue to most hotels and resorts. Due to the lack of adequate infrastructure, they often resort to disposing their solid waste in [desert] valleys. Wind blows and everything is back into the sea,” explains Ali. In an attempt to counter this problem, HEPCA launched its Marsa Alam Solid Management Project, an initiative that included collecting solid waste, sorting it and partially recycling some of it while disposing the rest in an environment friendly manner. The project proved successful, and HEPCA recently assumed full responsibility for cleaning up Hurghada, the Red Sea’s most populace city with over 250,000 inhabitants who produce 300 tons of waste on daily basis.

Some of us might mistakenly think that the solid waste problem is restricted to garbage piles around the corner or to rubbish-covered beaches. There is much more to it than just a hygiene issue.

“Plastic bags are a killer in disguise. Sea turtles often mistake them for jelly fish [one of the main components of turtle’s diet]. Once a turtle starts chewing on a plastic bag, it is a matter of time before the turtle is dead,” says Agnese Mancini, a turtle specialist who is in charge of the Red Sea Turtle Project.

In a bid to save the Egyptian Red Sea turtles, the project studies turtles’ behaviour, as well as their feeding and breeding grounds. Hawksbill and Green Turtle are the two main species of sea turtles often found along the Egyptian Red Sea Coast. “Turtles had mostly vanished from the Red Sea Coast’s northern sector, and that is primarily why we are focusing on its southern sector. Here, there is a chance of survival, especially when it comes to different Marine Megafauna,” adds Ali.

Marine Megafauna is an expression that has surfaced recently, even though it traces back to a time when large marine species inhabited the oceans during the Pleistocene age. Today, the term is often used in reference to large, often charismatic, species that depend on seas and oceans for their survival.

The Marine Megafauna list often includes whales, sharks, sting and manta rays, turtles, seals, and even penguins and pelicans. Marine Megafauna often poses as a strong attraction for tourists who happily spends large amount of dollars just to see them, rather than to consume them.

Turtles, dolphins and sharks are the top three Marine Megafauna found in Egypt. And one live turtle, dolphin, or shark is worth much more than a dead one. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in the Far East, and one kilogram of shark fins fetches a couple of hundred dollars; but can we imagine how much a live shark contributes to the local economy?

“The living marine resources of the Red Sea are limited but extremely valuable from the ecological, as well as economical, point of view. Taking the sharks inhabiting the vicinity of Brothers Island as an example, one single shark can generate up to $200,000 a year in tourism revenue. Extrapolating the data on a shark’s average lifespan, which ranges between 20 and 40 years, a live shark can generate somewhere between $4 and 8 million during its lifetime.

On the other hand, a single large shark, as catch, won’t fetch more than a few hundred dollars,” said Prof. Dr.  Mahmoud Hanafy, HEPCA’s chief scientist.

In recent weeks, fishermen were permitted once again into Ras Mohamed National Park, a protected by law eco-system that occupies the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Such a breach of protective measures could have irreversible implications.

“By constructing an over-the-top resort on a beach where turtles nest, or by allowing fishing in a protected area, we will lose the turtles, the different fish species and eventually the tourists,” said HEPCA’s marine biologist Maddalena Fumagalli.

The fishing ban was enforced once again in Ras Mohammed National Park; however, awareness remains a key player in the conservation game.

“Awareness is a very broad word, and we need to tackle it on a multilevel platform, which involves the different layers of the community; from school children to resorts’ GMs, and whatever in between,” says Ali. HEPCA is zealous when it comes to awareness and community involvement; supporting, as well as organising, much of the beach and underwater cleanups that take place along the Egyptian Red Sea coast.

Other tools adapted by HEPCA include awareness nights, where a certain environmental hazard is picked as the topic of discussion. The association also has an environmental school curriculum in the pipeline. The environment-oriented curriculum will pay extra attention to the Red Sea eco-system, and the best practices to safeguard it. It is due to be launched, as a pilot test in Hurghada, sometime in the near future.

Years of improper urban planning, corruption and a due negligence have taken a heavy toll on the Red Sea environment; nonetheless, the game is far from over. There is a lot that can, and will, be done to sustain a long-term tourism industry without devastating the surrounding environment. After all, without the unique Red Sea ecology, we wouldn’t have had those tourist bookings in the first place.

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