Abu Dhabi, February 17, 2018: Four dugongs, 3 males and 1 female, have been found washed ashore on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Public Beach in recent weeks, in what may be the biggest single die-off of one of Abu Dhabi's most vulnerable species. In addition, another dead dugong, an expecting mother with a fully-developed calf was discovered last week.
Following the incident, a team from the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) made up of species scientists and marine biologists have been racing against time to determine the cause of death and to intensify monitoring of critical areas. The results of the investigation and necropsy indicate that the most probable cause of death was drowning in an illegal fishing net, locally known as Hiyali.
Abu Dhabi is home to the world's second largest population of dugongs, with around 3,000 found mostly in the waters around Bu Tinah Island, part of the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve. Dugongs, their foraging habitats and their migratory routes in the UAE have been protected under Federal Law No. 23 and No. 24 since 1999. The UAE is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species making it an international commitment to protect dugongs.
Dr. Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Executive Director of the Terrestrial & Marine Biodiversity Sector at EAD, said: "This discovery is a harsh blow to one of Abu Dhabi's most vulnerable species and it may be the biggest single die-off of dugongs recorded in a decade. It once again affirms the vulnerability of these iconic species to human threats and the pressing need for fishermen to end irresponsible fishing practices. EAD's research has demonstrated that the majority of commercial and recreational fishermen are fully aware of the laws prohibiting the use of illegal nets and the protected status of dugongs in the UAE. However, in spite of the regulations in place and the awareness being raised, many fishermen continue to use Hiyali nets, because it is a particularly lucrative method of fishing."
"We will continue to prioritise the protection of dugong habitats and we will carry on ensuring that Abu Dhabi's waters are managed in a way that protects all marine species, in partnership with the Critical Infrastructure & Coastal Protection Authority. However, as the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founder of the UAE, stressed, environmental protection is not a matter only for government officials. It is an issue that should concern us all. And so, we call on all fishermen to fish in a responsible way," she said.
"In order to minimise mortality of dugongs during the winter season, we have already intensified our monitoring of critical areas within and outside marine protected areas and we have continued to meet regularly with fishermen calling on them not to use the illegal Hiyali net, not to leave fishing nets unattended and to report the locations of any abandoned fishing nets to EAD," she added.
It is important to note that commercial and recreational fishermen caught using illegal and banned fishing gear and methods will be prosecuted, first-time offenders can receive fines of up to AED 50,000 and/or an imprisonment term of not less than three months, while second-time offenders can receive fines of up to AED 100,000 and/or an imprisonment term of not less than one year.
EAD, with support from TOTAL and TOTAL ABK, has been studying and monitoring the local dugong population since 1999. These studies, which include satellite-tagging dugongs to study their migration patterns, have given EAD a better understanding of dugong behaviour and threats to the dugong population. Since it began its studies, EAD has investigated 153 dugong mortalities. By far, the most common cause of death has been suffocation from entanglement in illegal or abandoned fishing nets. Other causes of death have included habitat loss, marine pollution and collisions with speeding boats. Most of the mortalities were reported during the winter season, which coincides with an increase in the level of fishing activity.