Saving Egypt's bountiful marine life

Mohamed El Hebeishy, Thursday 2 Jun 2011

A 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 garbage-ridden beach on the Red Sea Coast – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy
A garbage-ridden beach on the Red Sea Coast – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy

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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