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Marine Life & Conservation

Samadai – A Dolphin Reserve in the Red Sea

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A world without dolphins… it’s hard to imagine, but it is a possibility. Pollution, starvation, and persecution all takes a toll – but there are places in this world where people have said ‘enough is enough’ and have taken steps to reverse this insidious trend.

One such place is Samadai in the Red Sea, which is a haven for Spinner Dolphins. General Mohamed Kamel, Governor of the Red Sea, has issued a new decree handing over management of Samadai to HEPCA (Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association).

HEPCA: “The Samadai management plan has been one of our community’s most important achievements towards protecting the dolphins of the Red Sea. This initiative was the first time that civil society, the government, and the tourism sector set aside their differences to protect one of our countries most valuable resources. This model will always stand as a testament of our community’s ability to mobilize in protection of our environment and natural resources”.

Shantel Seoane is Media and Communications Officer at HEPCA.

Jeff:  Can you describe in physical terms what Samadi is?

samadai-2Shantel: There are only a handful of marine habitats in the world comparable to Samadai. There are even fewer natural dolphin sanctuaries in the world and none that are under special protected status. Samadai is a rare and biologically diverse natural wonder and one of the most beautiful off-shore reefs in the region for swimming/snorkelling/diving. Not only is Samadai a habitat for hundreds of spinner dolphins; it is also one of the only places in the world where you can interact with them in their natural habitat. The Samadai initiative is an internationally recognized conservation model and a functioning example of sustainable tourism development. The Samadai initiative generates revenue and employment for the southern Red Sea’s tourism dependent economy. Samadai is a powerful destination highlight to help bolster tourism into Marsa Alam and the model will exemplify this destination’s environmental performance, thereby ensuring competitiveness on the world tourism market.

Jeff: How many Dolphins are there?

Shantel: Data analysis of photo ID has led to the identification of samadai-3218 animals and more are being added to the catalogue after recent surveys. This figure number includes identifiable individuals (marked) photographed at least once in the waters of Samadai since October 2005. Since a large portion of the population is composed by unmarked individuals (i.e. not identifiable because the edge of their dorsal fin is intact) it is not possible to count all the individuals using Samadai. However, methods do exist to account for this and provide a robust estimation of the population size: HEPCA team made use of one of the most widespread method (based on mark-recapture technique) and estimated that at least 480 animals do visit Samadai.

Jeff:  Why was it necessary to form a sanctuary in the first place?

Shantel: 10-15 years ago, Marsa Alam city was pretty different than today: much smaller and with less hotels and resorts. The mass tourism was just starting to come over. Samadai and its dolphins were there, approximately an hour from shore, a perfect combination that made Samadai a heaven on earth for tourists eager to encounter the dolphins and swim with them.

As of 2001, Samadai became the centre of “dolphin frenzy” and hundreds of people used to travel from as far as Hurghada to swim and play with the resident spinner dolphins. In a single day Samadai played host to up to 30 boats and 500-800 people: boats that were anchoring directly on the reef and guests, including inexperienced snorkelers, let into the water with no regard to the resting dolphins. The community intervened calling upon environmental NGOs as well as regional and national authorities to protect this precious sanctuary from an overuse that was unbearable and would lead to the deterioration of the site.

Samadai was then closed to all tourist operations for a few months while a anagement plan was drafted to fulfil the following:

a) regulate the tourism activities by creating dedicated zones in the reef

b) establish best practice guidelines

c) implement a proper monitoring programme

d) implement a service fee system to contribute to environmental conservation efforts

e) implement a public awareness program.

Samadai was then re-opened to tourism as a special dolphin preserve area in 2004. More than 208,000 people have visited it since then.

Jeff:  It can be relatively easy to set up a sanctuary on paper but how does it work in a practical way. Is it policed and enforced?

Shantel: The measures adopted by the management plan are the following;

  • Guidelines and best practices. For safety reasons, the code of conduct includes wearing a life jacket as compulsory for all snorkelers.
  • Enforcement. A representative from HEPCA is present everyday to check tickets and monitor activities in the site. For any enquires or report a violation, you can refer to him.
  • Zoning. The need to ensure that the dolphins have a safe, exclusive and restricted area within the reef is formalized by the zoning plan (figure below): Zone A, a clear no-entry zone corresponding with the inner (quieter and more protected) lagoon;

Zone B, designed for swimmers and snorkelers only, where transit of speedboats is prohibited;

Zone C, where mooring, diving and other activities can take place.

  • Visits limitation. A maximum of 10 boats have access to the reef, for a maximum of 100 snorkelers and 100 divers. Boats carrying snorkelers only are allowed in Samadai from 10am until 2pm, those with divers from 9am to 3pm.
  • Entrance fee. In order to generate an income to be reinvested in ameliorating and maintaining the protected area and possibly sustain other conservation initiatives, an entrance fee has been established and only visitors provided with tickets are allowed in Samadai. The ticket costs 105 EGP.
  • Scientific monitoring and research efforts. Previous research efforts, some dating back to 2004, are now being evaluated in a wide time perspective thanks to the long-term monitoring endeavoured by HEPCA and its Cetacean Research Unit.

samadai-4The design shows Samadai profile with the three zones:

Zone A no-entry zone, dedicated to the dolphin;

Zone B, only for snorkelers;

Zone C, for other activities.

The demarcation between zones is marked by orange (A/B line) and white (B/C line) buoys.

The income generated by the ticket system, according the management plan, is allocated as follows: 30% goes to HEPCA for the maintenance of the mooring system; 30% to the Red Sea Protectorates (EEAA, the National Parks of Egypt) and 40% to Marsa Alam city council.

Jeff:  Samadai has had a degree of protection since 2004. What will change now that HEPCA has taken over the management?

Shantel:  Despite some serious problems during the hand-over and many examples of blatant mismanagement by the previous entity responsible for the site; HEPCA managed to overcome every obstacle. Two HEPCA patrol boats have been stationed for duty at Samadai. Training and certification was carried out for over 130 guides in the south. This training will be on-going and only guides who have undertaken it will be allowed to enter the site for guiding. HEPCA has created a new web-site with information and valuable resources as part of our marketing campaign. Multiple sales tools will also be provided for our certified guides and centers. Dedicated HEPCA personal will evantually be on-board our bio-boat and observation deck during park hours. This exciting new facility will provide hands on interactive learning for students and visitors alike, while our staff and dolphin specialists engage visitors and provide factual information.  Every visitor will receive our ‘Dolphin Code of Conduct Pamphlet’. Educational videos, presentations and further publications will also be provided on board the bio-boat. HEPCA is planning to hire staff from the local community as the Samadai project develops and there is a lot of potential for employment and job creation if we succeed. A community based dolphin monitoring program for Samadai is another important aspect we are planning on building into the project.

Improving the Management Plan

The Samadai management plan was created for the purpose of protecting this unique dolphin habitat and we will never waiver from this mission. HEPCA’s new vision is to build on the current Samadai management framework, with a new dimension that will give added value to this important tourist attraction. Our aim is to enhance the experience of this amazing site, thereby increasing income and reinvesting it back into environmental conservation. Samadai needs to be revitalized as an experience beyond just swimming with dolphins. The basis of our new campaign aims to invoke a new sense of community ownership over this precious site and its resident spinner dolphins. We would like to re-ignite the momentum that first brought the Samadai initiative to news headlines in 2004. Any modifications to the management plan will be to encourage tourists and tourist operators to visit the site at no detriment to the dolphins.

Awareness Raising Program / Community Outreach.

Raising awareness and providing educational media will be our most important target in the initial phase. Providing factual information and managing visitor’s expectations is an important part of guest retention and thereby ensuring prosperous and long-term growth for the local economy. HEPCA has provided a comprehensive guide for dive and tour guides, which can be downloaded here: http://www.hepca.org/downloads/projects/b6b72-Booklet5%20final.pdf

We are commemorating our Samadai campaign by offering free excursions to Samadai for school children and local residents every Friday. In order for the community to truly appreciate this natural wonder, they must see for themselves the beauty that this site has to offer.

Training and Certification

The basis of our dive guide training/certification scheme is our 2012 publication ‘ A Guide to Samadai’.  http://www.hepca.org/downloads/projects/b6b72-Booklet5%20final.pdf   This comprehensive publication is the culmination of years of data collection and research by our scientific team. Most of our members in the south have already received the booklet and participated in our Samadai workshop towards the end of 2012. HEPCA carried out guide training and certification from March 7-9 and over 130 dive guides were certified. This 3-hour course was  in order to assure a quality experience for every visitor and implementation of best practices in the area. This will also ensure that the guides offering tours in Samadai will be able to manage guest expectations and provide factual information, thereby maintaining high guest retention.

A new web-site and resource portal dedicated exclusively to Samadai is now live – www.dolphinhouse.org. The site will serve as an important marketing platform and an educational resource containing years of information and research. A list of all Samadai certified dive guides and operators will be available on the site as a sales tool for our members. We will soon be launching our Sponsor a Dolphin project which will allow individuals to “adopt a dolphin” and to help us protect them for the long-term.

Our new state of the art and mobile classroom the bio-boat is currently being built and will be deployed at the site by May. This facility will be manned by our dedicated personal and dolphin specialists. It will serve as a floating classroom with observation deck, live green roof, science equipment, the latest multi-media tools and more. Certified guides will be able to bring their guests on-board for an enriching and interactive experience.

Streaming live images from a web-cam including underwater streaming video will also be broadcast on the web-site. A hydrophone will also broadcast through radio transmission allowing any boat radio to tune into the frequency and hear the dolphins.

Jeff: It looks as if Samadai has a secure future?

Shantel: We are very optimistic about the samadai initiative and believe it is a model that has already set the precedence for dolphin protection globally. The Samadai initiative is an internationally recognized conservation model and a functioning example of sustainable tourism development. This project was the first time in the Red Sea that civil society, the government, and the tourism sector came together to protect one of the region’s most valuable resources. I think this is already an achievement in itself and proves that our community has our priorities straight when it comes to the protection of the environment.  samadai-5

Jeff:  Have any other countries or conservation organisations looked at what you are doing with Samadai and encouraged to do similar in their own territories.

Shantel:  We don’t know of any other countries that have a similar model, but we are hoping to export the Samdai model to countries all across the world.

Jeff:  Why is it so important for us to protect the Dolphins here and come to that, other marine species?

Shantel:  Samadai is a habitat for hundreds of spinner dolphins. Dolphins have a universal appeal as a tourist attraction and Samadai is one of the only places in the world where you can interact with them in their natural habitat. What better way to ensure guest retention, especially as this kind of experience only exists here.

In terms of finance alone, wildlife in general adds significantly to the Egyptian economy. For example; it is estimated that one shark generates up to $100,000 dollars in tourism revenue per year. It is estimated that one square meter of reef has the potential of generating $100,000 in tourism revenue per year.

What must be understood is that the Red Sea region is a barren and arid-dry environment. The Red Sea’s rich and diverse marine eco-system is the very life-line of this community and economy. If this unsustainable use of our environment is allowed to continue, it could only be a matter of decades before we destroy it completely and irreversibly.

You can learn more of HEPCA’s work at http://www.hepca.org/

Jeff Goodman is the Editor-at-Large for Scubaverse.com with responsibility for conservation and underwater videography. Jeff is an award-winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker who lives in Cornwall, UK. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

Marine Life & Conservation

Ghost Fishing UK land the prize catch at the Fishing News Awards

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The charity Ghost Fishing UK was stunned to win the Sustainability Award.

The winners were selected by a panel of industry judges and the award recognises innovation and achievement in improving sustainability and environmental responsibility within the UK or Irish fishing industries in 2021.

Nominees must have demonstrated a unique and innovative response to an environmental sustainability issue within the UK or Irish industry, demonstrating that the project has gone above and beyond standard practice, and provided evidence of its impact. The judges look particularly for projects that have influenced a significant change in behaviour and/or that have inspired broader awareness and/or engagement.

Ghost Fishing UK originated in 2015, training voluntary scuba divers to survey and recover lost fishing gear, with the aim to either return it to the fishing industry or recycle it. The charity is run entirely by volunteers and has gone from strength to strength, only last year winning the Best Plastic Campaign at the Plastic Free Awards.

Now, the charity has also been recognised at seemingly the opposite end of the spectrum. This is a unique achievement as trustee Christine Grosart explains;

We have always held the belief that working with the fishing industry is far more productive than being against it, in terms of achieving our goals to reduce and remove lost fishing gear.

The positive response to our fisheries reporting system that we received from both the fishing industry and the marine environment sector, was evidence that working together delivers results.

The feedback we got from the awards evening and the two-day Scottish Skipper Expo where we had an exhibit the following day, was that the fishing industry despises lost fishing gear as much as we do and the fishers here are very rarely at fault. It is costly to them to lose gear and they will make every effort to get it back, but sometimes they can’t. That is where we come in, to try to help. Everyone wins, most of all the environment. You can’t ask for much more.”

Following the awards, Ghost Fishing UK held an exhibit at the Scottish Skipper expo at the new P&J Live exhibition centre in Aberdeen.

This gave us a fantastic opportunity to meet so many people in the fishing industry, all of whom were highly supportive of our work and wanted to help us in any way they could. This has opened so many opportunities for the charity and our wish list which has been on the slow burner for the last 7 years, was exceeded in just 3 days. We came away from the events exhausted, elated, humbled, grateful and most of all, excited.”

Trustee and Operations Officer, Fred Nunn, is in charge of the diving logistics such as arranging boats and organising the divers, who the charity trains in house, to give up their free time to volunteer.

He drove from Cornwall to attend the awards and the exhibition: “What a crazy and amazing few days up in Scotland! It was awesome to meet such a variety of different people throughout the industry, who are all looking at different ways of improving the sustainability and reduction of the environmental impact of the fishing industry.

It was exciting to have so many people from the fishing industry approaching us to find out more about what we do, but also what they could offer. Fishermen came to us with reports and offers of help, using their vessels and other exhibitors tried to find ways that their product or service could assist in our mission.”

  • Ghost Fishing UK uses hard boat charters from Cornwall to Scotland for the diving projects, paying it forward to the diving community.
  • The charity relies on reports of lost fishing gear from the diving and fishing community and to date has received well over 200 reports, culminating on over 150 survey and ghost gear recovery dives, amounting to over 1000 individual dives and diver hours by the volunteer team members.
  • You can find more information at ghostfishing.co.uk
  • If you are a fisher who knows of any lost fishing gear, you can report it to the charity here: ghostfishing.co.uk/fishermans-reporting
  • The charity is heading to Shetland for a week-long project in the summer of 2023. If you would like to support this project, please contact them at: info@ghostfishing.co.uk

Chair of Ghost Fishing UK and professional technical diving instructor Dr Richard Walker was immensely proud of the team’s achievements;

I’ve been a scuba diver since 1991 and have met thousands of divers in that time. I’d be hard pushed to think of one of them that wasn’t concerned about conservation of our marine environment. To be recognised by the fishing industry for our efforts in sustainability is a huge honour for us, and has encouraged our team to work even harder to find, survey and remove lost fishing gear from the seas. The fact that the fishing industry recognises our efforts, and appreciates our stance as a group that wants to work alongside them is one of the highlights of our charity’s history, and we look forward to building the relationship further.

To find out more about Ghost Fishing UK visit their website here.


All images: Ghost Fishing UK

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Marine Life & Conservation

Komodo National Park found to be Manta Hotspot

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Through a collaborative effort between citizen divers, scientists from the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), and Murdoch University, a new study reports a large number of manta rays in the waters of Komodo National Park, Indonesian, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, suggesting the area may hold the key to regional recovery of the threatened species.

Reef mantas (Mobula alfredi), which grow up to 5m, tend to reside and feed in shallow, coastal habitats. They also visit ‘cleaning stations’ on coral reefs to have parasites, or dead skin picked off by small fish. Courtship ‘trains’ are also observed adjacent to cleaning stations. In Komodo National Park, manta rays are present year-round, challenging the famous Komodo dragon as the most sought-after megafauna for visitors.

Scientists teamed up with the dive operator community to source identification photographs of manta rays visiting the parks’ waters and submit them to MantaMatcher.org – a crowdsourced online database for mantas and other rays. Most of the photographs came from just four locations from over 20 commonly visited by tourism boats.

I was amazed by how receptive the local dive community was in helping collect much-needed data on these threatened animals,” said lead author Dr. Elitza Germanov. “With their support, we were able to identify over 1,000 individual manta rays from over 4,000 photographs.

People love manta rays—they are one of the most iconic animals in our oceans. The rise of the number of people engaging in SCUBA diving, snorkeling, and the advent of affordable underwater cameras meant that photos and videos taken by the public during their holidays could be used to quickly and affordably scale data collection,” said MMF co-founder and study co-author Dr. Andrea Marshall.

The photographs’ accompanying time and location data is used to construct sighting histories of individual manta rays, which can then be analyzed with statistical movement models. These models predict the likelihood that manta rays are inhabiting or traveling in between specific sites. The study’s results showed that some manta rays moved around the park and others as far as the Nusa Penida MPA (>450 km to the west), but overall, manta rays showed individual preferences for specific sites within the Park.

I found it very interesting how some manta rays appear to prefer spending their time in some sites more than others, even when sites are 5 km apart, which are short distances for manta rays,” said Dr. Elitza Germanov. “This means that manta rays which prefer sites where fishing activities continue to occur or that are more popular with tourism will endure greater impacts.”

Fishing activities have been prohibited in many coastal areas within Komodo NP since 1984, offering some protection to manta rays prior to the 2014 nationwide protection. However, due to illegal fishing activity and manta ray movements into heavily fished waters, manta rays continue to face a number of threats from fisheries. About 5% of Komodo’s manta rays have permanent injuries that are likely the result of encounters with fishing gear.

The popularity of tourism to these sites grew by 34% during the course of the study. An increase in human activity can negatively impact manta rays and their habitats. In 2019, the Komodo National Park Authority introduced limits on the number of boats and people that visit one of the most famous manta sites.

This study shows that the places where tourists commonly observe manta rays are important for the animals to feed, clean, and mate. This means that the Komodo National Park should create measures to limit the disturbance at these sites,” said Mr. Ande Kefi, an employee of the Komodo National Park involved with this study. “I hope that this study will encourage tourism operators to understand the need for the regulations already imposed and increase compliance.”

Despite Indonesia’s history with intensive manta ray fisheries, Komodo National Park still retains large manta ray aggregations that with careful ongoing management and threat reduction will benefit regional manta ray populations. The study highlights that marine protected areas that are large enough to host important manta ray habitats are a beneficial tool for manta ray conservation.

For more information about MMF visit their website here.

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