Four dugongs – three males and one 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, excutive director of the terrestrial and 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 this 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.
“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.
The EAD has now intensified its monitoring of critical areas within and outside marine protected areas and is meeting regularly with fishermen, calling on them not to use the illegal hiyali net and to report the locations of any abandoned fishing nets.
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 Dh50,000 and/or an imprisonment term of not less than three months, while second-time offenders can receive fines of up to Dh100,000 and/or an imprisonment term of not less than one year.
Other causes of dugong death included habitat loss, marine pollution and collisions with speeding boats.
Know the shy vulnerable marine mammal
>Dugongs are the only marine mammals which are herbivore.
>The Arabian Gulf and Red Sea host around 7,000 dugongs.
>Dugongs have been traditionally persecuted by humans for their meat and oil.
>Dugongs are more closely related to elephants than to whales or dolphins.
>Dugongs are shy, secretive.
>Dugongs are often referred to as “sea cows” because they feed almost exclusively on seagrass. They can eat up to 30kgs of seagrass daily and can weigh anywhere from 230-500kgs.
>Dugongs sometimes breathe by “standing” on their tail with their heads above water.