Those enchanting marine marvels have the subtlest of aesthetic appeals, easily enticing you to a tantalising wonderland of amazing sculptural forms in red, purple and blue hues. Truly, coral reefs are in a league of their own. Coral reefs attract millions of visitors worldwide, but beyond their tourism potential, they support sustainable fisheries and protect coasts.
Oman is blessed with over 530 sq km of stunning coral reefs that support more than 100 coral and 580 fish species. Certainly, Omani coral reefs could win top laurels if a global marine beauty pageant if held, now that we have a computational formula to categorically assess coral reef’s beauty quotient.
However, Omani coral reefs have traditionally missed the limelight, with just less than 5 per cent of regional studies or publications focusing on them. Also, awareness about the Sultanate’s amazing coral reefs among global and domestic tourists is depressingly minimal.
Herein lies the significance of Reef Check Oman, an Omani not-for-profit project run by Omanis for Omanis aimed at preserving and promoting the Sultanate’s coral reefs. The project is all set to change this lackluster approach towards the country’s coral reefs.
Recognising the coral reefs’ role in complementing local livelihoods, boosting tourism and supporting traditional ways of life, Reef Check Oman works with individuals, NGOS and businesses towards conserving Oman’s coral reefs. The group is seeking volunteers to be part of their conservation and awareness projects.
Oman’s coral reefs thrive in the fjords and coastlines of the Musandam Peninsula; the Suhar—Ra’s Abu Dawood stretch including the Daymaniyat Islands; the southern shore of Barr Al Hikman and the west coast of Masirah Island; and Dhofar from the Hallaniyat Islands to Mirbat.
Reef Check Oman owes its existence to international conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions, which started its annual reef research and conservation expeditions to the Musandam Peninsula in 2009. The highlight of the expedition was a placement programme to train Omanis in Reef Check techniques. The programme has since trained a significant number of local Omani divers as Reef Check EcoDivers (qualified to conduct surveys) and Reef Check Trainers (skilled to train others to become reef surveyors).
Oman conducted its first ever community-based coral reef survey in January last year with the help of a team of seven Omani nationals and residents, trained by Biosphere Expeditions in Reef Check methodology, who surveyed Fahal Island and Ras al Hamar, near Muscat. The survey’s goal was to better protect the natural marine beauty of Oman and pass it down to the next generation, along with safeguarding livelihoods and traditions of local people including fishermen.
Later that year, Reef Check Oman was established as an affiliate of Los Angeles based Reef Check Foundation, by graduates of Biosphere Expedition’s Reef Check training programme.
Biosphere Expeditions’ annual reef surveys in Musandam gave rise to several reef protection measures in the area. They also trained local divers in Reef Check as part of their placement programme.
Their surveys in Muscat and Musandam have shown that Omani reefs are still healthy, but are threatened by a host of issues including overfishing, pollution and unsustainable development. Biosphere Expedition stresses on community-based surveys as the scientific data they generate can help Oman government to press ahead with coral reef protection measures.
The latest report by Biosphere Expedition on Musandam Peninsula notes that the region’s coral reefs endure extreme conditions such as high salinity and temperatures, and thrive in highly challenging environments, which is remarkable. Musandam’s coral reefs may hold the key to coral survival in the face of global warming, the report says, adding, although Musandam corals appear to exhibit regional resilience, there is concern that any additional stress may induce coral die-off or ecosystem change.
A local capacity-building and educational programme by Biosphere Expedition brought out a colouring and educational booklet for use in local and outside schools to create better awareness about coral reefs and their significance.
Biosphere Expedition has already trained several local Omanis in reef survey techniques since 2010 and launched community-based reef monitoring programmes.
With the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) and other coral reef conservation efforts at the government level, and with the emergence of local NGOs such as Reef Check Oman, the Sultanate’s amazing coral reefs are expected to play a much bigger role in the country’s sustainable fisheries and significantly boost its eco-tourism potential.
T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR