Biosphere Expeditions, is a multi-national group that acts as guardians for some of the world’s most beautiful marine environments, surveying and conducting habitat and health checks on some of the most unique and bio-diverse environments around the globe. Here in the Sultanate, much of their focus is on the coral reefs of the Northern Musandam Peninsula. Biosphere Expedition’s annual survey of the governorate sees an international team of divers conduct extensive surveys of fish species populations and reef health.
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, a coral reef expert from the Marine Conservation Society and the expedition’s chief scientist, summarised their most recent expedition saying, “Our surveys have taken place during a particularly rich plankton bloom, so visibility in the water has been quite low. Many sites hosted large numbers of snapper, which is encouraging, but the average size of the snapper is quite small, which indicates probable overfishing.”
He did display concern however, noting that large numbers of the Diadema sea urchins continue to be a threat to the corals, because they are overgrazing the bedrock, and while Hammour numbers were identified as reasonable, again this indicates overfishing, which is of much greater concern, since only the larger and more mature of the species can breed and reproduce.
Dr Matthias Hammer, the founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions explained, “We are now at a crucial stage in Musandam. Discussions with the local fishermen are encouraging, and they are respecting the Khor Hablain ‘closed area’, declared in 2013, where only line fishing is now permitted.”
The pair see the involvement of the local fishing community as essential in any coherent response to marine issues, as those people, whose very livelihoods are at stake, are valued stakeholders in all decisions and processes. The Omani government has been commended for its foresight in closing such a large area of the Musandam for all but line fishing. This far-sighted and visionary policy will certainly assist in the conservation of fish stocks and the coral reef health around Musandam.
Now, two Omani Reef Check Trainers have just been certified and can now train their compatriots in Reef Check, a methodology for divers to become citizen scientists and assess coral reef health. The two trailblazers are Jenan Anwar Alasfoor and Ali Saleh Ibrahim. This is a significant first for Oman, in that Omani citizens have now taken leading roles in the Sultanate’s reef science and conservation, demonstrating a national concern and contribution.
Both Alasfoor and Ibrahim are graduates of a programme co-funded by the Anglo-Omani Society and the Marine Conservation Society. They graduated as Reef Check Eco Divers, and went on to take a leading role in the initial community-based reef survey in Oman in 2017, when Alasfoor also became the head of NGO Reef Check Oman. The pair then completed a marine biology distance learning course at the UK based University of Exeter. Now, certified as Oman’s very first Reef Check Trainers, they can train and certify others in these valuable Reef Check methodologies.
Biosphere Expeditions has created a community-based programme in the Maldives which is the model for the Omani group and Ibrahim explained, “The knowledge I have gained participating with them will help me further with my interest of protecting the local underwater environment. Now I am ready to start my first independent Reef Checks, together with other placement graduates and I plan to do this in the coming months. I really appreciate Biosphere Expeditions’ efforts to save coral reefs in my country and thank them for giving me the opportunity of a placement on the Musandam expedition, putting Oman on the world stage of conservation expeditions.”
Dr Nigel Winser, former Director of Earthwatch Europe, and now organiser of the annual Oman Natural Heritage Lecture in London, indicated recently that, “the next step for Oman, in terms of its conservation and environment objectives, is to build on the many great field-science activities taking place by communities, groups, and individuals to understand better, Oman’s unique natural land and marine heritage.” He continued, saying “The future of this magnificent country’s natural environment must be a collective will and a ‘shared responsibility by all’, as His Majesty has reminded us in the past. I am delighted to see the continuing ‘citizen-science’ work by Biosphere Expeditions and the active programmes of the Environment Society of Oman.”
Dr Winser also hopes to be able to announce details of the 3rd Oman Natural Heritage Lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, London in May, where the Sultanate’s continued environmental and conservation efforts will again be showcased for the world to see.