14 September 2013

Shark Attack!!

How many of you saw the title and expected to read about the demise of a poor human in the mouth of a monster? It seems we are largely pre-conditioned to associate sharks with fear and menace. The movie Jaws has a lot to answer for, as does the wider media with its propensity to depict sharks as man-eaters.  The reality is that it is the sharks themselves that are under attack - by us! Yes, we, the supposedly 'civilised' human beings are systematically destroying our own planet for profit and greed and simply ignoring the consequences.  It makes me unbelievably angry and sad.

I woke up this morning looking forward to a relaxing day off work, a cup of tea in bed and something to read.  I made the mistake of turning on the wifi on my phone and was immediately confronted by a series of images that made me furious and had me jumping up to write this post.  Khareef in Dhofar has passed, the fishing boats are out at sea and yet again we are seeing hundreds and hundreds of dead sharks landed at Mirbat harbour (and no doubt elsewhere across Oman too).  It's not new, but it doesn't make it any less horrifying, particularly since many of these sharks are endangered.  It makes me want to cry.  Look at all those hammerheads! How can an endangered species be pulled from the ocean in its hundreds with apparently no regulation or consequence? When will they stop? When there're simply none left? Sharks don't stand a chance against modern fishing fleets and their overall demise may come sooner than we think judging by the quantities of juveniles that are being fished.  The problem is that sharks don't seem to illicit much sympathy in people.  They are not cute or cuddly and somehow people aren't touched by their plight in the way that they might be for other land-based species.  But whether you like them or loathe them, we NEED sharks! They maintain the health of our oceans. Without them we are ALL in trouble.  This is the message that doesn't seem to be getting through.  Many people don't like sharks, are scared of them and therefore simply don't care about their survival.  This is such a naive and ignorant outlook.  Sharks are the apex predators of the ocean and they keep other marine life in healthy balance.  Our oceans are the most important ecosystem on the planet - supplying us with food, oxygen and controlling temperature and weather.  Destroying shark populations could destroy our primary sources of food and air.  So if you care about the future and care about your children, you should care about sharks. It really is that simple.  Our very existence is dependent, at least in part, upon theirs.

So even if you can't bring yourself to care about sharks for altruistic reasons, then do it for selfish ones - to protect your own future and that of the next generation.  And before you start thinking how nice it might be to get in the ocean and not worry about sharks, let's just put that fear in perspective.  You are about 100 times more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than a shark, so watch out for those Salalah palm trees!

In 2011 there were 17 reported fatalities globally attributed to shark attacks.  In the same year 1051 people died on the roads in Oman alone.  Go figure!

I really urge any of you reading this to do whatever you can to make your voice heard on this issue. Petition the supermarkets that continue to sell shark, write to the Ministries, do anything - just don't do nothing!  The fishing industry needs regulation. Localised collapse in fisheries will not help the fishermen either, so there needs to be some real awareness and education on these issues.

Dead hammerhead sharks at Mirbat Harbour 

The next photo made me particularly sad because, whilst I am not a scientist or expert in shark identification, I could swear that those big-eyed sharks are threshers.  They are incredibly distinctive creatures and earlier this year I travelled half way around the world for the chance to be able to dive with them.  It is heartbreaking to see them dead in an Omani harbour.  Thresher sharks are globally in decline and are classified as 'vulnerable' by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Dead thresher & hammerhead sharks at Mirbat harbour

I had no idea thresher sharks even frequented Arabian waters.  As a scuba diver there are only 2 places on the planet known for thresher shark sightings.  I had to travel all the way to the Phillippines to see these amazing and graceful creatures at first-hand.  Below is a video I took whilst diving off the island of Malapascua.  Here a thresher shark is seen as it should be - in its natural habitat.

Oman was recently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world and whilst that may indeed be true for its humans, the same can not be said for its sharks!

24 May 2013

Carrefour - Holy Cow!!

For any non-native English speakers reading this, let me first explain that 'holy cow!' is an expression generally used to convey surprise.  In this case though, shock would be more appropriate!  I heard today that the long-anticipated opening of Carrefour, Salalah finally took place.  What shocked me though was not that it finally opened, but rather that they chose to display a live baby cow in a small cage - at the meat counter! Is this some kind of sick joke?! What on earth were they thinking? Animals should not be used for our entertainment, and I can not think of a more inappropriate and cruel environment for a young calf to be in! Not only locked in a small cage, but in the glare of supermarket lights, crowded with people who no doubt found it amusing to taunt and tease it. The poor animal must have been terrified.  This is a very bad start for Carrefour.  As a global retailer they really should know better.  Perhaps some marketing genius thought this would be a great way to demonstrate the freshness of their butchery products? I personally find it incredibly distasteful and it sends out all the wrong messages.  If you agree I suggest you write to the manager (Khalid al Khatouri) and express your disapproval.

Has anyone been to Carrefour today? Is the animal still there? If anyone can shed any light on this bizarre situation I would be very interested to hear from you.  I would also be interested to know what Carrefour has on their fish counter? I have written previously about my concerns over Lulu's sale of sharks.  I sincerely hope we will not see shark for sale at Carrefour!

Finally, how's the plastic bag situation?! Dare I be optimistic enough to visualise eco-carriers (as their 'act green' website suggests)? Carrefour, as a new player in Salalah, has the opportunity to set an example and lead the way in promoting more sustainable, responsible ways of shopping. I really hope they take the opportunity that Lulu so clearly missed and don't just fall into the same old lazy ways of all the other retailers in Salalah.  Now that there is more choice consumers can vote with their feet. I hope we will see positive change as a result!

Photos courtesy & copyright of S Anil Kumar

07 December 2012

Why All The Dead Fish?!

Something concerning is happening in Salalah's waters. The fish are dying and nobody seems to know why. 

I first heard about dead fish floating around Raysut fishing port around 10 days ago. Subsequently, I heard of dead fish, baby sharks and eels washing up around the beach near the Hilton. Initially I thought nothing of it - assuming they were by-catch or discards.  Sadly it seems to be common practice here for fishermen to throw what they don't want from their catch onto the beach rather than back into the sea.  It has become clear, however, that what is going on just now is an entirely different, and unexplained, phenomenon. 

I went to take a look for myself a couple of days ago and found that the beach in Raysut was absolutely covered in dead fish. Similarly, the surface of the water was dotted with bloated, silvery carcasses.  It was a similar story in front of the Hilton (though to a lesser extent).  

Rumours are rife and there has been much speculation as to what is going on, but I have yet to come across a plausible explanation.  Some are claiming it's a natural phenomenon - talking about oxygen deprivation and the effects of khareef on water temperatures and currents. To me this doesn't ring true. Khareef is an annual occurrence in this part of the world and I know people who've lived here more than a decade who've never seen anything like this before.  Furthermore, why would the 'death zone' be isolated to the Raysut/Port/Hilton area (which it mostly appears to be)?

Dead fish at Raysut
Another reason (given by Hilton hotel staff I believe) is that a fishing vessel overturned.  There are a couple of reasons why this doesn't add up.  Firstly, sources at Salalah Port have told me that they haven't heard of any such incident (and basically, anything bigger than a small, local boat, they would know about).  Secondly, fish are continuing to die more than 10 days later. How could that be if they'd all just tipped into the ocean from a boat?  When I went to Raysut there were fish in varying stages of decay. Some had clearly been dead a long time, whilst others were relatively fresh, and some were still alive - flapping and gasping for breath in the surf.  These were not healthy fish. I tried to throw some of them back into deeper water but they seemed unable to swim - tilting onto their sides and being thrown back up the beach in the waves.

I am no expert and any reasons I give are also pure speculation. All I do know is that something is very wrong - it's clear to see.  Salalah has a lot of industry, especially in this area, and it concerns me that there may have been some kind of leak (oil, fuel, chemicals? who knows?).  Either way, surely there has to be some kind of investigation. Has the water been tested? If there is any kind of contaminant then people have a right to know, and action needs to be taken to minimise the environmental impact.  For now, fishing continues as normal, but who can say if the fish are safe to eat?  I have heard some reports of dead seabirds but I haven't seen any for myself.  I can't know if this is related or not and, if so, whether they were killed by whatever killed the fish, or died as a result of eating the fish. 

To the best of my knowledge, there has been no reporting on this issue.  If anyone knows otherwise, or has any information at all, then please do get in touch.

Fishermen heading out in a sea of dead fish

13 September 2012

Masirah Turtle Adventure!

A version of this article appeared in the Oman Observer on 12th September 2012

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks on the island of Masirah, volunteering on a turtle project. When I was contacted about it, I first had to look up exactly where Masirah was, and how to get there.  Surprisingly for somewhere with so much to boast about, the island is still relatively unknown.  With a small population centred in the town of Hilf, and accessible only by a 1.5 – 2 hour ferry journey from the mainland (and a long drive depending on your point of origin), Masirah remains somewhat inaccessible.   That is something to be grateful for and probably the island’s saving grace, for Masirah is much more than just a sleepy Omani outpost, the island is of real global significance as it is home to arguably the largest population of nesting loggerhead turtles in the world.  This is no small accolade and one that is not without responsibility.  Nature has blessed Masirah with four species of nesting marine turtle (loggerhead, green, hawksbill and olive ridley) and Oman must recognise and fulfill its duty to do everything in its power to protect these endangered species.

Masirah is still, thankfully, relatively unspoilt, but nonetheless human actions are already causing significant threats to the turtles, and this is only likely to worsen as increasing development takes place. 

Nature is already tough on turtles before man-made problems are even taken into account.   Turtle hatchlings have an incredibly difficult start in life and, witnessing at first-hand their battle to emerge from their nests and reach the ocean, it can be hard to imagine how any survive into adulthood at all.  

As a scuba diver I am used to seeing turtles underwater – where they move swiftly and with graceful ease.  Seeing them on land is a different experience entirely. It’s so abundantly clear how difficult the journey is for them. The large, heavy females drag their bodies up the beach in search of a suitable nesting spot, and many cover huge, exhausting distances before they even begin the process of digging, laying and covering their nests, before heading back to the sea. 

Here, at a new nest, the circle of life begins (or ends prematurely, depending on circumstance).  Turtle eggs are hugely vulnerable to predation by numerous animals, and humans have also been known to harvest eggs for consumption.  Furthermore, nests that are close to the shore can become water submerged causing the eggs to rot.  For those that survive to full-term, their troubles have only just begun.  The hatchlings have to dig their way out, orientate themselves and run the gauntlet of seagulls and crabs to reach the ocean.  Make no mistake - the seagulls and crabs on Masirah are vicious and plentiful - and nature has not been kind to hatchlings, making them a colour that is camouflaged neither on land nor in water.  For those that make it to the ocean currents, a whole host of new predators awaits and only very few will survive to reach an age where they can reproduce and begin the process again.  Loggerhead turtles (which are most abundant on Masirah) are deemed to have reached sexual maturity when their carapace (the hard shell) reaches a length of 90 cm or more.  Unbelievably, this can take up to 35 years!

Whilst nature might appear to have given turtles a raw deal, it is all part of the larger eco system, and the low turtle survival rates have been balanced out by the sheer number of eggs laid by individual turtles (100+).  Unfortunately though, that delicate balance is being destroyed by avoidable human actions that are putting the survival of the world’s sea turtles at serious risk.

dead turtle lost far from the ocean
In just the short time I was there, I witnessed a number of troubling incidents which raised concern over just how many turtles are dying needlessly. One adult female turtle was caught in a fishing net abandoned on the beach (2 of her flippers had become entangled). Luckily we were able to free her and she made her way back to the ocean. We also found a hatchling, which looked like it was emerging from a nest, but on closer inspection had become entangled in some plastic cord which was preventing it from moving. Again, on this occasion, we were fortunately able to save it.  In the space of 2 weeks I also saw three dead adult turtles on the beach. Following their tracks, the most likely explanation seemed to be that they got lost.  This is a common problem which can occur due to light pollution which plays havoc with a turtle’s internal navigation system. Turtles normally rely on natural light from the moon to help guide them to the sea, but artificial light can cause them to inadvertently navigate towards the source of that light, finding themselves lost far from the ocean.  Lost turtles will quickly dehydrate and die once the sun comes up.  On one evening we also witnessed a 4x4 parked on the beach right next to an adult female turtle, with its full-beam headlights pointing directly at her.  Whilst this may have seemed like an enjoyable outing for the occupants of the car, for the turtle it was a life-threatening experience.  As soon as we approached, the car sped off, but at least we were able to ensure the turtle found her way back to the water.  It makes me wonder how often this kind of selfish act goes by unnoticed.
turtle trapped in fishing line
another turtle life extinguished :-(

Turtles are officially protected in Oman by Royal Decree (which is great news), but the problem of course lies with awareness and enforcement.  I only saw one sign on the whole of Masirah with instructions for visitors to the turtle nesting beaches.  Whilst the content was good, the sign was falling apart and, with only one of them, how many people would happen to see it?  Anyhow, prohibiting people from doing certain things isn’t in itself useful unless there are consequences for those that disobey.  Whilst restricting access to the beaches would undoubtedly be unpopular with locals, it really does seem like a necessity if the turtles are to have a secure future.  Some simple fencing could prevent vehicle access and also stop the turtles straying into the road, whilst still leaving beaches open to the public.  The existing tar road already runs very close by the beach, along with several graded tracks. There really is no need for people to drive right down to the surf! 
visitor information sign

Masirah is a rugged island of exceptional natural beauty with a turtle population to be extremely proud of.  It is also home to an impressive number of bird species, including the endangered Egyptian vulture.  As is common to many island communities, the residents of Masirah seem closely bonded and somehow different to their mainland counterparts.  There is huge potential for eco-tourism on the island, but the prospect of it terrifies me as it has the scope to cause enormous and irrevocable damage unless it is extremely well managed.  Already there is a new luxury hotel on Masirah, and continued development in the name of ‘progress’ is likely.  The Masirah Island Resort, to be fair to it, is much more understated and low key than I expected, and their lighting (for a hotel) is very minimal.  I was also impressed to see information displays about turtles and other island wildlife in its lobby (something Ras Al Jinz could take note of).  Unfortunately though, and despite these efforts, the nearby turtles will still likely be adversely effected by the existence of the hotel.  I witnessed the effects at first-hand whilst assisting with a study on the impact of artificial light on turtle hatchlings.  Whilst data has not yet been analysed or reported, it was clear to see that the majority of hatchlings released on beaches in the vicinity of artifical light (streetlights, building light etc.) travelled towards the source of that light and hence away from the sea.  

19 June 2012

Could We Grow Fruit Trees in the Omani Desert?!

Well, if a certain Dutch inventor is to be believed, then the answer is a resounding yes - and we could do so without irrigation!

Pieter Hoff is the founder of a company that has pioneered a planting technology called Groasis. Yesterday he was in Salalah to give a presentation at Dhofar University and introduce the concept to us.

Mr. Hoff began by talking about the global problem of depletion of groundwater reserves. He stated that 4 countries in the world have no groundwater at all. He didn't say which countries these were, but if that statistic is true then it is truly shocking.  He also went on to talk about how groundwater is becoming contaminated with salt water (an issue which apparently exists here in Oman).  With this shortage of water and a growing population (expected to hit 10 billion in the next 25-35 years) he concluded that there needed to be a way for agriculture to use less water.  It was this thinking that led him to develop the 'waterboxx'.  

Mr. Hoff pointed out that, in nature, trees can and do grow in the desert and in rocky areas. Anyone who has visited the desert here will know this to be true. In other words, there is enough rainfall in the desert to sustain plant life.  The problem isn't actually the quantity of rainfall (more rain falls in the desert than we imagine) but the fact that it all falls in a very short time period (perhaps 2 weeks).  Seeds therefore germinate when the rain falls, but then everything dries up and the young plants die.  Without getting too scientific, Mr. Hoff's 'waterboxx' is a bio-mimicry technology - in other words it copies how Mother Nature solves the problem of growing trees in desert regions. The waterboxx assists the tree through the planting period until it can reach natural water and self-sustain. A lot of this is to do with having the right kind of roots (called primary roots) which allow a plant to break through hard ground (even rock) to reach water.  Mr. Hoff explained this very well, but I suspect I'm failing to! Anyone wishing to understand the subject better would be well advised to look at the website!

Overall, the technology came across as simple yet clever and, importantly, affordable. No irrigation is necessary and it appears to have an excellent success rate, judging by existing projects in various countries around the world.  In future there are also plans to make the waterboxxes from cellulose material. In a country like Oman, that would mean being able to make the system from readily available materials like palm leaves.

Whilst Groasis is evidently a business and Mr. Hoff will of course have a vested interest in its success, I really found his argument to be very persuasive.  If this technology works and is adopted it could have multiple positive effects - reduced reliance on groundwater, reforestation of desert areas, food production and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions due to an increase in trees. It seems like a very good result.  Interestingly, a planting experiment using this technology has already taken place in Sohar Free Zone. I don't know when it was initiated, but it would certainly be of interest to know how it is proceeding.

Incidentally, I should say that I am in no way affiliated to the company - I just found the product to be very interesting and thought you might too! 

Mr. Hoff says that his dream is to replant the 2 billion hectares of land that man has cut over the last 2000 years. I wish him every success!

Groasis planting experiment at Sohar Free Zone, Oman.         

 Image reproduced from http://www.groasis.com/en/photos/photoalbum/oman

18 April 2012

Volunteer to plant trees in Salalah!!

To mark Earth Day on 22nd April, several tree planting events are taking place in Salalah. The events will see native trees (including frankincense) planted in a number of locations. Everyone is welcome, and encouraged, to join in.  Details are as follows:

Sunday 22nd April: 8am - College of Applied Science, Salalah

Monday 23rd April: 8am - Frankincense Park, Adoneb

Monday 23rd - Wednesday 25th April: 8am - Rakhyout, Dhalkout, Al Mazyoona 

If you would like to take part, please confirm your participation to:

Mohammed Al Mashani (for Frankincense Park event): 92866643
Mr Majed Akaak (for other events): 95340050

Happy Planting! :-) 

Boswellia Sacra (frankincense tree)

30 March 2012

Earth Hour & Apathy

Tomorrow, 31st March 2012, marks 'Earth Hour' - the global initiative organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to encourage people across the world to switch off their lights for an hour.  The first Earth Hour took place in Australia in 2007 and over the following years has expanded to include participation by millions of people across 135 countries. Here in Oman the event has been championed by ESO, with landmark buildings like the Royal Opera House Muscat agreeing to dim their lights between 8.30 - 9.30pm.

Earth Hour is designed to raise awareness of sustainability issues and to send a message for action on climate change.  Whilst I'm all for raising awareness, we have to ensure that that awareness leads to real action and change.  My concern is that initiatives like Earth Hour actually allow a lot of people to simply feel like they've done their bit. It assuages their guilty conscience and they carry on as normal until next year. One hour, annually, of turning out the lights is not going to make any difference.  People need to live the changes. A token gesture is not enough.  I personally will not be taking part in Earth Hour. Not in protest and not because I would find it difficult to sit by candlelight for an hour, but simply because I don't believe that me switching everything off for an hour changes anything. I prefer to be aware of my energy usage every day and to do my best to save resources at all times.

I don't mean to denigrate those who do take part, and I do think awareness raising is crucial, but I do want to make it clear that people need to do so much more.  It often feels to me like I am surrounded by complete apathy.  So many people talk a lot but so few are willing to actually do anything.  Whilst social media can be a powerful networking tool, it seems also to have bred a generation of people who think that by Facebook 'liking' something they have made a difference. They may, in some abstract way, be showing their support for a cause, but they're changing absolutely nothing.  The petition to stop Lulu selling sharks is a case in point. Many people 'liked' the link to it on Facebook but didn't actually sign it! I don't care about being 'liked', I care about making a difference - and so should you!

On that note, Happy Earth Hour and, remember, "Be the change you wish to see in the world..."