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From whale sharks to sea turtles: protecting Qatar’s sea life

By Euronews
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From whale sharks to sea turtles: protecting Qatar’s sea life
Copyright  euronews

How is Qatar helping to conserve some of nature’s most endangered sea creatures? Qatar 365 took to the ocean to find out more about the country’s projects that include protecting nesting sea turtles, stopping boats from harming whale sharks and restoring the food source of dugongs.

Restoring dugongs’ food source

Qatar is home to the world's second largest population of dugongs, or sea cows. The sea mammal is at a very high risk of extinction. 

But a unique project in Qatar is focusing on increasing their food source in an attempt to stop them from disappearing from our oceans.

Evidence of the marine mammals dates back millions of years - now they face serious risks as they come up for air; from speedboats or fishing nets. In the last 50 years their numbers have dropped by around 25 percent.

“We hope these dugongs can be seen by our son, by our grandson and great grandson. How to do that? You need to protect them now,” said Dr Mehsin Al Yafei, a marine scientist.

Dugongs feed on seagrass, eating up to 40 kilograms per day. The equivalent of roughly two football fields is lost each year – which is why a team of experts here are attempting to rebuild and restore seagrass meadows. 

The team collects samples – checking on the water quality to see if new plants are thriving. The meadows provide shelter, refuge, and food for many marine species.

Whale shark feeding grounds

The elusive whale shark is also at risk of dying out. With characteristic dotted fins, these gentle giants have become an endangered species over the years. But there is one place off Qatar’s coastline where hundreds can still be seen gathering each year.

Leading whale shark research scientist Mohammed Jaidah explains why the location is so special: “This is a phenomena that happens in Al Shaheen. In summer there is a lot of evaporation of the sea water because of the heat, and the average temperature of the Gulf is about 34. But we found in Al Shaheen actually the temperature average is 27.

“It is the ideal temperature for fish egg incubation. The whale sharks come to feed on the fish eggs. Normally they feed on plankton but here with the fish eggs, if they take the same amount it will be triple in gaining fat and energy and protein in their system.”

The number of whale sharks in Qatar has actually been increasing over the years, Mr Jaidah says, as his team started pushing to reduce the number of ships in the area. “They avoid the area, and they keep an eye out – when they see the whale sharks they avoid them. So it is a very nice protected area for the whale sharks. So the whale sharks are actually coming with more numbers.”

Protecting the nesting grounds of hawksbill turtles

Hawksbill turtles are the most endangered of the seven species of sea turtles, with estimates suggesting there are less than 25,000 nesting females globally. 

Experts in Qatar are focused on conserving eight areas in the country the turtles are known to frequent, including a section of Fuwairit Beach. 

Throughout nesting season, which runs from April to June, teams from Qatar University’s Environmental Science Center, and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, patrol the beach looking for turtle tracks, in a project sponsored by Qatar Energy. 

They monitor the nesting population, count the number of females, tag them, and count the number of eggs, relocating many to a nearby hatchery to protect them from any natural hazards, including flooding. 

Mark Chatting, a researcher and scientific diver, explains that it’s important to study these turtles with regard to climate change:  “The nest temperatures we get in nests here are what people predict will happen in the Caribbean in 50 years’ time, so we’re already experiencing that here. And that’s not to be alarmist – but you know seeing how these turtles have adapted to those conditions can give insights into what may happen elsewhere.”

Qatar is raising awareness of the importance of conservation efforts to help nesting hawksbills, and projects like these are vital to ensure that this next generation of hawksbill turtles have a fighting chance.