The Gulf provides habitat for five of the planet’s seven marine turtle species. It also supports coral reefs, West Asia accounting for eight per cent of the world’s mapped reefs.
While these contribute substantially to marine biodiversity, ground reality is that both turtles and reefs are as gravely threatened in this region, as they are the world over.
All five turtle species fall into either the endangered or critically endangered categories; and two-thirds of the Gulf’s coral reefs are classified as at risk.
With threats persisting and growing, EWS-WWF considered it important for concerned nations to congregate and strategize about the region’s marine biodiversity.
At the Marine Conservation Forum held on September 11 – 14, 2006 in Abu Dhabi, over 80 marine experts, government officials, and environmental NGOs from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Yemen, Iran and Eritrea gathered in the UAE capital to deliberate on the region’s sea turtle and coral reef resources, the perils these face and possible conservation solutions.
The format of the Forum, which started off with experts sharing an international perspective on conservation efforts, followed by country presentations and break-out sessions for smaller focus-groups, was highly conducive to learning and interaction.
The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and green turtle (Chelonia mydas) regularly occur in the waters of the Gulf and Arabian Sea. Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) turtles are also spotted. All species, other than the leatherback, nest in the region.
Nesting beaches occur in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran, but the finest are found along the coasts of Oman and Yemen. In Oman, an estimated 30,000 loggerhead turtles nest on Masirah Island each year, making this possibly the world’s largest nesting ground for the species, while some 13, 000 – 20, 000 annual nesting female green turtles congregate on Ras Al Hadd and Ras Al Jinz.
Loggerheads also nest along Socotra Island in Yemen, which additionally hosts some of the Arabian Peninsula’s most important nesting beaches for green and hawksbill turtles on the Sharmah – Jethmoon coast by the Gulf of Aden.
Coral habitats (with patch, platform and fringing reefs) surround major islands and offshore banks in all countries of the Gulf. It is not surprising that the best coral ecosystems are also where the greatest turtle populations occur – Yemen and Oman coasts, where reefs provide ample foraging grounds.
About 10 per cent of Oman’s 300 km coastline, abutting the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea, supports reef-forming corals at locations including Musandam Peninsula, Masirah Island, Mirbat-Salalah and Damaniyat Islands.
It is, however, Yemen’s reefs (Red Sea and Gulf of Aden) that are the jewels in the crown.
With 253 stony coral species, Socotra archipelago is one of the richest sites for reefs in the western Indian Ocean. Extensive and diverse coral growth is also observed along the Red Sea coast of the country.
In the course of the Forum, there was an astonishing revelation from Iran: The presence of soft coral. Past research had ruled out the presence of soft coral in the Gulf. Surveys in 2004, however, revealed three genera of soft coral from seven Iranian islands, including some new records for the Gulf.
Marine biodiversity in the region faces extensive threats. One recent and most damaging threat to turtle and coral habitats in almost all Gulf states is the unprecedented pace of construction along, and off, the coastline. Destructive and wasteful fishing is another.