Grants to save sharks and reefs

Two UAE-based environmental organisations are among nine groups in five countries which will share in US$100,000 (Dh367,00) in grants, announced yesterday, from the Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental Grants programme.

The Dubai-based Emirates Diving Association (EDA) received $9,000 towards its Reef Check programme, in which volunteer divers and marine biologists regularly monitor coral reefs.

And the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which runs its Middle East programme from Dubai, will get $7,000 to teach fishermen and environment officials in the region about the negative effects of shark finning,

Rita Bento, who has been trained by the EDA, said that the money would allow Reef Check to expand from its current three locations in Dibba.

“We will be able to collect data from different places and we can train more volunteers,” she said.

Reef Check, founded in 1996 in the US, has now spread to 90 countries. It relies on volunteer divers who receive training on how to recognise important species of coral, fish and invertebrates. The volunteers record the number and density of certain species, and other data, which is then used by marine biologists to make conclusions about the overall health of a coral reef and how it may be changing over time. The EDA has trained more than 70 volunteer divers in 2009 and 2010.

Ms Bento said that the programme was already yielding important information about the health of the reefs in Dibba. While an accumulation of rubbish is turning out to be one of the main problems, the studies also show that declining numbers of some species of fish, including groupers and sweet lips, indicate overfishing.

In the Middle East the IFAW trains customs and veterinary officials in 15 countries about trade in endangered animals. Since 2007, the organisation has trained 800 officials in Egypt, Syrian, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya and the UAE.

The new grant money will be spent on training sessions in Al Mukkala, Yemen, so fishermen and environment officials can learn about the damage done by shark fishing, said Dr Mohamed Elsayyed, programme manager at IFAW.

About a hundred million sharks are caught each year around the world, he said. The trade in shark fins is particularly troublesome to environmentalists, as it means sharks are killed for only a small part of their bodies. The animals die a cruel death, Dr Elsayyed said.

In the region, Yemen is a hot spot for the fishing efforts, he added. “Sharks are caught there for their fins to fuel the demand for shark fin soup in the Far East,” said Dr Elsayyed. “Many species of sharks are at the brink of extinction.”

With its transport connections to many countries in the Far East, the UAE is “one of the main routes” for the trade in fins, he said.

“Shark fins are collected in Oman, the other GCC countries, Somalia and Yemen and exported to the UAE,” he said. “The main role of the UAE is re-exporting activity”.

Each year since 2000, the Ford programme has awarded grants to ongoing, grassroots projects in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE.

Since that year the company has given out more than $1.1m to 130 projects.

Dr Thabit al Abdessalaam, director of the biodiversity management sector at the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, and a member of the jury which decided on how to award the grants, praised Ford for being one of the only big companies to consistently award environmental grants.

Although most private companies donate money to well-known and established organisations, small-scale projects also need support, he said.

“For environmental sustainability to succeed, it cannot be a top-down effort only, it has to be a bottom-up effort as well,” said Dr al Abdessalaam.

“This is why it is important to support grassroots efforts that support the environment.”