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Marine Life & Conservation

Laamu Atoll, Maldives named Hope Spot

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Marked by a continuous 130km reef, the Laamu Atoll is found in southern-central Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Laamu’s striking marine habitats have been a focal point for conservation and research within the atoll’s biologically unique and valuable seagrass meadows, isolated inner reef formations and mangroves since the opening Six Senses Laamu resort in 2011.

Laamu Atoll has been declared a Hope Spot by international marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue in recognition of Six Senses Laamu’s work in demonstrating sustainable ecotourism practices and creating the framework for scalable marine conservation methods to help shape a healthy future for generations to come in the Maldives.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, says: “To look back to 2011 when Six Senses began collecting information, to now as we’re celebrating the designation of the atoll as a Hope Spot – it’s truly a reason for hope. It’s so important that we protect the ecosystems there, especially the seagrass meadows that we now understand are so important to generating oxygen, capturing carbon and providing a home and security for so many creatures not only within the atoll but throughout the depths beyond. By promoting understanding of the value of the ocean to the people of the Maldives and the rest of the world, one Hope Spot at a time, we’re creating a true network of hope.”

The Hope Spot Champions, Marteyne van Well and Adam Thalhath are hopeful that Laamu will become an atoll composed of locally managed marine protected areas (MPAs), and to continue developing educational programs that will influence the next generation of environmental stewards with pride for their atoll.

Adam Thalhath, Sustainability and Community Outreach Manager of Six Senses Laamu says: “In the Maldives, it is very rare for an atoll not to have multiple resorts and developments. Six Senses is the only operating resort in Laamu Atoll and just 20% of the islands here are inhabited. It’s important that we continue to have a sustainable relationship with the ocean and have protections put in place to support those efforts.”

(c) Jennifer Penner

Laamu Atoll has been the location of consistent scientific monitoring from Six Senses Laamu since 2011. Through collaboration with its three partners- The Manta TrustBlue Marine Foundation and the Olive Ridley Project– Six Senses Laamu created the Maldives Underwater Initiative, a team working towards protecting Laamu’s marine habitats through establishing MPAs and a management plan. This has involved gathering ecological data, fostering support within the community and working with the local government in addition to establishing sustainable and profitable livelihoods for the surrounding islands. The Manta Trust and the Olive Ridley Project have been working to understand the population and habitat use of manta rays and sea turtles. Both Manta Trust and the Olive Ridley Project are Mission Blue Alliance partners.

(c) Leanna Crowley

“It is through our partnerships with these three experienced and specialized organizations that we have been able to collect such detailed information on Laamu’s species and habitats,” explains Philippa Roe, the Maldives Underwater Initiative’s Head Marine Biologist. “Our work through collaboration has also led to other successful projects, from nation-wide seagrass conservation to community knowledge sharing, none of which would be possible without the expertise and qualities each partner brings.”

(c) Alex Mustard

“The community is also involved in every project and initiative,” explains Marteyne van Well, General Manager of Six Senses Laamu. She continues, “It is truly a grassroots effort. In order for marine protected areas to be established, maintained and enforced, it has to come from the bottom-up, and it has to be sustainable in an economic way as well.”

The Maldives’ government is expected to announce new protected areas in Laamu, in accordance with the new Government’s Strategic Action Plan, in late-2021. The Laamu Atoll Council and Blue Marine Foundation have communicated the evidence of the need to protect this area. Blue Marine Foundation is working with Laamu Atoll Council to undertake resource use surveys, participatory planning sessions and community education and awareness programs, and is a Mission Blue Alliance partner as well.

Laamu Atoll’s three richly diverse ecosystems possess an enormous amount of healthy life. Researchers have counted 47 coral genera to date, with some inner reef coral cover recorded up to 50% – very rare in the Maldives since a mass coral bleaching event in 2016. These areas likely supply other damaged reefs with coral larval supply, vital for reef recovery. More than 400 species of fish have been recorded in Laamu, including endemic, endangered, and critically endangered species. The mangroves within the atoll consist of both open and closed systems, containing four mangrove species, providing a haven for migratory birds and juvenile fish.

Seagrass meadows act as a carbon sink by absorbing and storing carbon in their roots and the surrounding sediments. In Laamu, the Six Senses Laamu team is measuring the extent to which carbon is stored in Laamu’s seagrass meadows.These meadows also provide a key food source for green sea turtles, of which  Laamu contains the most significant nesting beach in the Maldives, on one of Laamu’s uninhabited islands, L. Gaadhoo. Despite this, scientists have determined that 38% of nests on this island were poached in the 2019-2020 nesting season, indicating the need for further enforcement of regulations protecting this species in the atoll.

The Olive Ridley Project is working with Maldives Environmental Protection Agency to implement community-led monitoring and patrolling of nesting beaches. Community led projects also extend to monitoring of Laamu’s marine habitats. Blue Marine Foundations’ Laamaseelu Farundun (Exemplary Citizen) program, trains volunteer local residents to monitor and survey seagrass, mangroves and coral reefs, contributing to further understanding of the present situation of the atoll’s ecosystem and any future changes.

“We hope that the Laamu Atoll Hope Spot can be a flagship for functional MPAs in the Maldives with the support of the local community, who will benefit both economically and ecologically,” says van Well. “We are capable of preventing unsustainable development without holding the community back economically. It’s important to show that it’s achievable – it’s been possible for Laamu, and it’s possible anywhere.”

Thalhath adds: “The Maldives relies on tourism, but now is the time to protect the marine ecosystems. If we put protections in place now, we’ll create a healthier future for all life here, humans and fish alike.”

The Maldivian government has pledged to protect at least one reef, one mangrove and one uninhabited island from each atoll by 2022. In 2018, the local government, the Laamu Atoll council, pledged to protect five ecologically significant areas in the atoll. Recently, significant progress has been made on these goals and the designation of nationally Protected Areas within the Hope Spot is expected in the coming months.

“Through these ongoing projects, it will be demonstrated how networks of marine protected areas provide a haven to replenish other areas impacted by either human or natural damage, increasing ecosystem resilience on an atoll-wide scale,” says van Well.

For more information about Mission Blue visit the website by clicking here.

Nick and Caroline (Frogfish Photography) are a married couple of conservation driven underwater photo-journalists and authors. Both have honours degrees from Manchester University, in Environmental Biology and Biology respectively, with Nick being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a former high school science teacher with a DipEd in Teaching Studies. Caroline has an MSc in Animal Behaviour specializing in Caribbean Ecology. They are multiple award-winning photographers and along with 4 published books, feature regularly in the diving, wildlife and international press They are the Underwater Photography and Deputy Editors at Scubaverse and Dive Travel Adventures. Winners of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Photo-journalist of the Year for a feature on Shark Diving in The Bahamas, and they have been placed in every year they have entered. Nick and Caroline regularly use their free time to visit schools, both in the UK and on their travels, to discuss the important issues of marine conservation, sharks and plastic pollution. They are ambassadors for Sharks4Kids and founders of SeaStraw. They are Dive Ambassadors for The Islands of The Bahamas and are supported by Mares, Paralenz, Nauticam and Olympus. To find out more visit www.frogfishphotography.com

Marine Life & Conservation

Shark Guardian investigation finds endangered sharks for sale in Taiwan

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A field investigation into Taiwan’s shark fin industry was conducted by Shark Guardian between December 2020 and March 2021. The investigation obtained documentary evidence of fins from endangered shark species being openly offered for sale by over half of all shark fin traders surveyed in Taiwan’s southern fishing port of Kaohsiung.

Of the 13 shark fin processing and trading companies visited, more than half were found to be trading CITES- listed fins, and seven had shark fins from CITES Appendix II-listed species as part of their product range. One company saidthere was no difference in selling protected or unprotected species. Protected sharks’ products usually create a problem for international shipping only.”

The new report details how seven out of thirteen traders surveyed in Taiwan were found to be selling shark fins from silky sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, mako sharks, thresher sharks and great white sharks in broad daylight – in contravention of Taiwanese and international law.

Over a three-month period, Shark Guardian investigators witnessed multiple shipments of shark fins from endangered species being unloaded at Donggang fish market which is in Taiwan’s southern city of Kaohsiung.

Alex Hofford, Marine Wildlife Campaigner with Shark Guardian, said “To save sharks and the marine environment, Taiwanese authorities should implement an immediate crackdown on its cruel and unsustainable shark fin trade, and should tighten up local laws to ban the domestic sale of shark fin as well as better enforce its international obligations under CITES. It is also high time that the Taiwanese government should rein in its out-of-control distant water tuna fishing fleet, who are a major supplier shark fin to Chinese markets. Whilst Taiwan is a beacon of democratic and progressive values in Asia, it is allowing its unsustainable and often crime-ridden fisheries sector to rape and pillage our ocean with impunity. This must stop. Taiwan needs to show leadership in environmental protection and must quickly clean up its act as regards its sleazy shark fisheries and trade sectors.”

During our investigation, Shark Guardian also found evidence of Taiwan-based online retailers selling fins of endangered species of shark in contravention of local and international law.

According to WWF, a third of all sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, yet fishing and trading in unsustainable shark fin remains a highly profitable, but environmentally destructive, enterprise for Taiwanese companies operating out of Kaohsiung.

Brendon Sing, Co-Director of Shark Guardian said “Clearly more must be done to protect sharks globally. There are over 500 known shark species with only a handful of them listed under CITES. Even then, CITES listed sharks are still traded illegally where monitoring and enforcement lack any power and expose loopholes in the system. As long as this continues, there is no real protection for any shark species regardless of CITES listing or not. Taiwan must be responsible and take positive action in response to this report.”

Shark Guardian believes that excessively large profit margins are the main reason why Taiwan has never acted to rein in its shark fisheries and trade.

Shark Guardian hopes that Taiwan can apply its progressive values towards preserving the marine environment by imposing a comprehensive ban on the physical and online selling all species of shark fin in Taiwan. Such a ban would go above and beyond what is required under international law, and Taiwan’s domestic laws can be changed with public support.

For more information about Shark Guardian visit their website by clicking here.

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Marine Life & Conservation

PADI and National Geographic Pristine Seas join forces to protect at least 30% of the Ocean

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In 2020, Enric Sala, founder of Pristine Seas and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, approached PADI with the idea to join forces to protect the ocean, combining his vision and proven track record of successfully creating MPAs with the global footprint and extensive reach of the PADI community around the globe. PADI Dive Centres and Resorts are critical stakeholders in their local economies and their leadership, together with the influence and expertise of Sala and his team at National Geographic Pristine Seas, can be a catalyst for lasting change for a return to a healthy ocean and balanced marine ecosystem.

“Ocean conservation benefits everyone, especially the diving sector. We are excited to partner with PADI and all their dive centres worldwide to foster the protection of popular dive sites all around the world,” said Enric Sala.

Initiating this partnership is a global Dive Industry Economic Evaluation Survey to measure the economic benefits of the dive industry on local communities, using data from PADI Dive Centres and Resorts in 186 countries. In cooperation with researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Simon Fraser University, this analysis will be used to inform governments how the creation of MPAs can create jobs and produce important economic outputs locally.

PADI will engage its Mission Hubs, the 6,600 Dive Centres and Resorts who are the heart of the organisation’s save the ocean mission, in a survey to provide the data necessary to complete this study. The information gathered through PADI Mission Hub participation in the survey will be an integral component of the study that will be used to influence local and national governments to establish marine protected areas and protect marine environments for divers and other stakeholders.

“PADI Mission Hubs play a critical role in our Blueprint for Ocean Action and are key stakeholders in the push for increased protection measures for the underwater world,” says Drew Richardson, President and CEO of PADI Worldwide. “Each PADI operator brings unique insights, local expertise, community leadership and passion for our ocean. By coming together as a unified force, the PADI community in partnership with National Geographic Pristine Seas will provide an unprecedented global voice to influence long-term ocean protections.”

Over the last 12 years, Pristine Seas has completed 32 expeditions around the world and helped inspire the creation of 24 marine reserves, protecting over 6.5 million square kilometers of ocean — an area more than twice the size of India. They work with local communities and governments to survey their environments, identify their goals and protect vital ocean areas.

The Dive Industry Economic Evaluation Survey will be available to PADI Dive Centres and Resorts through the remainder of the year.

To learn more about PADI’s Blueprint for Ocean Action and other ways you can join the community of PADI Torchbearers in protecting the ocean, visit padi.com/conservation.

For more information about Pristine Seas visit the website by clicking here.

All images: Courtesy of Pristine Seas, National Geographic Society

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