The marine environment has always played a significant cultural and economic role for the United Arab Emirates. Dating back more than 7,000 years, the country was originally a hub for pearl diving. The success of the industry, along with the growth of other seaborne industries such as fishing, trade and tourism helped the country to grow to the wealthy state it is today and cemented its connection to the ocean.
Today, UAE citizens and residents remain reliant on the ocean for food, water and ocean and the Government has an active policy to develop the contribution of non-oil related activities to the economy. Yet like many other countries, the UAE’s coastal waters face a number of issues such as rising surface sea temperatures due to climate change, overfishing, and ocean acidification that jeopardize its health and wellbeing.
Azraq, a non-profit marine conservation organisation registered with the Community Development Authority in the UAE on a mission to safeguard and protect the oceanic ecosystem gives us some insights.
What is the UAE government doing to protect the oceans?
In light of these challenges, the UAE government has embarked on a number of initiatives to protect marine life. In October 2020, the UAE became the first Middle Eastern country to take a leading role in the Global Ocean Alliance. This UK-initiated program aims to protect at least 30 percent of global Marine Protected Areas, termed ‘30by30’1. Since 2019, the total protected marine area in the country has expanded significantly from 15.07 per cent to 15.53 per cent in 2020. Areas such as Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary and Jebel Ali Wildlife Sanctuary have also been designated as marine protected zones, where a wide variety of mangroves, lagoons and wildlife can be found.
The MOCCAE has also developed the national committee on sustainable development goals with one of its focuses being the rehabilitation of the coastal and marine habitat in the UAE. Their current priority is the cultivation of mangrove trees in the UAE, the restoration and rehabilitation of the marine habitat through the artificial reef programme, and the restoration of coral reefs. As of 2022, they have planted over 270,000 mangrove seedlings over 280,000 square meters. They have also created over 2,800 artificial reefs over an area of 155,000 square meters and transplanted 20,000 coral fragments over an area of 2,500,000 square meters3.
What can we do next?
While government initiatives to rebuild the marine environment go a long way, environmental and economic sustainability can only be achieved with the support of local communities. There are several ways in which members of the public can do their part to protect the UAE’s oceans. Here are a few ideas to inspire you to take action this year.
- Mangrove conservation: Mangrove forests were once generally dismissed as swampy wastelands. However, we have now come to value them as remarkably diverse ecosystems that are critical for protecting our coasts. Through organisations like Azraq, you can witness the wildlife that inhibits the mangrove ecosystem by participating in educational kayak tours and even planting a mangrove yourself.
- Scuba diving: Scuba diving is a fantastic way to connect with the ocean and witness for yourself the incredible wildlife that exists below the surface. Scuba diving gives you the opportunity to learn more about marine species, photograph sea life or even pick up some waste that has ended up on the sea floor. Companies such as Chloe Blue and Freestyle Divers provide introductory and advanced courses for divers in the UAE. Individuals who are also a member of Azraq receive up to 15% up with both these providers.
- Join a beach clean-up: An important part of protecting the ocean is ensuring that it remains trash-free. Despite an excellent waste management system in the UAE, thousands of cigarette butts, plastic bottles, fishing net and other rubbish is found on beaches every single day. Follow @azraqme to find planned beach clean ups occurring throughout the winter or pick up a bag and head out yourself one day.
- Build an artificial reef: Artificial reefs have been used for thousands of years to create hotspots for marine life. Historically fishermen used this technique to increase their catch, but in recent years, marine conservationists have used this approach to extend natural ecosystems by creating new habitats for coral growth and marine creatures. Artificial reefs and coral nurseries also play a role in extending the natural coastal protection, reducing coastal erosion, storm damage and flooding. Organisations such as Freestyle Divers work with individuals and companies to build new structures and carry out coral propagation programmes with the goal of increasing coral stocks to mitigate the bleaching damage from increasing surface sea temperature, as well as establishing new marine habitats to increase fish stocks.
- Wear reef-friendly sun creme: Sunscreen is terrible for ocean life and particularly corals. Most suncreams are chemical-based, containing UV-blocking chemicals like oxybenzone (sometimes labelled benzophenone-3) and octinoxate. These particular chemicals in suncream are thought to disrupt coral’s ability to reproduce and grow. Oxybenzone acts as a fatal endocrine disruptor – causing baby coral to encase itself in its own skeleton and die – and is harmful in adult coral species, eventually leading to mass bleaching. Be sure to use to avoid these chemicals and choose mineral or zinc-based products which are better for the environment.
- Reduce your plastic consumption: Most of us are aware by now of the significant damage plastic pollution is doing to our oceans. One of the most effective ways of mitigating this damage is to reduce the amount of plastic that we consume as a nation. Buying loose fruit and veg, using refillable water bottles, and taking reusable bags to the store are just a few easy swaps to help reduce the amount of plastic you consume.
- Education: the summer months are an ideal time to learn more about the ocean and marine conservation. Azraq provides a complete curriculum of courses, starting with introductory workshops for children aged 6+, through to university interns looking for practical experience and adults who would like to learn more about preserving our ocean resources.
- Start a small home garden: Potted plants act like a mini-carbon sink, helping to reduce ocean acidification while also creating a happy and relaxed home environment. Growing your own plants – either for the purpose of eating or just as a hobby – is one of the most simple and cost-effective ways of getting in touch with nature. Avocado trees, tomatoes and lettuce are some of the most effective vegetables to grow inside and will even grow in most apartments.
- Shop sustainable: Fast fashion is a major cause of environmental pollution globally. According to Forbes, around 90 percent of fast fashion brands directly contribute to water pollution, through refusing to treat their wastewater and allowing it to contaminate clean water supplies. Rather than supporting the fast fashion industry people can shop wisely choosing brands that sell long lasting and durable clothing items and also choose to shop more mindfully, buying only when needed rather than excessively.
- Be an ocean advocate in your office/ home: One of the most effective ways of protecting the ocean is to inspire others to care about it. Learning more about the ocean and sharing these facts with friends is one of the best ways of building the collective action that is required to build impact globally.
1 According to UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment’s news report (2020).
2 Reported by the United Arab Emirates’ Government Portal and the MOCCAE (2021).
3 Reported by the MOCCAE (2022).