Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

MENA Seas: New Species Harbor New Reality

Mena seas face devastating consequences of overfishing and tourism, highlighting the urgent need for conservation measures.

Egyptian fishermen cast a net from their boat in the Nile in the capital Cairo. Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP

Dana Hourany

On Thursday, June 8, 2023, a Russian family’s holiday on the coast of the Red Sea in Egypt turned into a tragedy.

During a swimming session near the Elysees Dream Beach Hotel in Hurghada, 23-year-old Russian Vladimir Popov was attacked and mauled to death by a tiger shark.

Videos of the incident quickly went viral on social media alongside theories about how the attack occurred, indicating that his girlfriend survived the incident unscathed.

Authorities asserted that the shark was quickly captured after the attack and taken to a lab “for examination and all required information to determine the possible causes of the attack.”

The Red Sea coast in Egypt has become home to growing numbers of tourists, with resorts popping up along its shore. However, this growth is believed by experts to be having a negative impact on the region’s wildlife, specifically sharks. Another tragic example of this occurred on July 2022, when two women were killed in separate incidents while swimming off the coast of Hurghada. Overfishing and tourist activity have been highlighted as potential culprits for the increasing frequency of these attacks.

Though Egypt is severely affected by marine life changes due to illegal fishing, pollution, and climate change, it’s hardly alone. In fact, these problems are pervasive throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. According to experts, continued disregard of the issue could spell trouble across the region’s waters within a short timeframe.

Potential causes and reasons

Along the Red Sea are some of Egypt’s most well-known beach resorts, including Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh. These locations are well-liked by visitors from Europe. The coral reefs provide dramatic drop-offs and a diverse and colorful marine life that lure divers.

In fact, Egyptian authorities have made significant efforts to boost the crucial tourism industry, which has been severely harmed by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. However, preventive measures against shark attacks were not taken, despite their frequency.

In 2020, a shark attack at Hurghada resulted in a Ukrainian boy losing an arm and an Egyptian tour guide losing his leg. A decade prior, similar shark attacks near Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula cost one European tourist her life and left several others seriously injured.

According to a report from the committee of experts from the Red Sea protectorates and Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association in 2022, shark attacks can be explained by the sharks’ propensity for congregating in shallow waters during their mating and egg-laying season, which is from the middle of April to the end of July. Most likely, the attacks were motivated by a desire for food.

Shark attacks are also linked to overfishing in the Red Sea, misuse of diving and snorkeling locations, and people feeding fish – the purpose is usually to attract and interact with fish species, not specifically to trigger sharks. However, as different species start locating new food sources, they are drawn to beaches and shallow regions, where they are followed and attacked by sharks.

The cause of this year’s attack is still under investigation, and the female shark is said to have been mummified and displayed in the Institute of Marine Sciences and the Red Sea Reserves.

One theory from an environmental report on the circumstances of the attack suggests that it could have occurred due to overfishing as less fish means less food for sharks. This means that such incidents are becoming more common in the Red Sea.

“It is confirmed that overfishing leads to a decrease in fish populations, leaving insufficient food for shark species. Nevertheless, this does not imply that sharks replace their normal diet with preying on humans. If an incident occurs, it should not be taken as a general indicator, “Hani Sadik, an activist monitoring environmental violations in the Red Sea, told Scoop Empire.

A dangerous phenomenon

Environmental expert and Sakharov fellow Achref Chibani told Fanack that the MENA region’s marine diversity is in grave jeopardy due to a combination of factors, including the absence of long-term plans, ineffective enforcement, and lack of proper monitoring of policy implementation. These factors also include rising ocean temperatures as a result of climate change, which put a number of species at risk of extinction.

Chibani cited the example of the blue crab that has been invading Tunisia’s shorelines since 2014 as evidence that “certain local species are at huge risk of extinction, while alien ones continue to infiltrate and proliferate, which throws off the pre-existing equilibrium established in the aquatic eco-system.”

In his 2022 paper “Invasive Crab: a threat to local fishermen in Tunisia,” the expert notes the impact of the invasive blue crab on Tunisia’s coasts. Despite expectations that this non-native species’ presence would be short-lived, they have proven to be persistent, killing other species in the process. This makes managing their effect difficult—during peak seasons, they make up for over 70% of the local catch. To offset possible losses, some fishermen have resorted to catching them and selling them abroad.

According to the expert, fishermen could sell one kilogram of blue crab for between $0.30 and $0.50 to companies, who would then package and export the crustacean to a variety of countries, most notably Italy, Australia, and the United States. They are then resold at greater rates; for example, they are sold at Tunisian Carrefour for $1.40 per kilogram.

The rising number of crabs has inadvertently presented a source of income for people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean, especially in Gaza (Palestine) and Larache (Morocco) and for women from vulnerable communities working on Tunisian coasts.

“However, governments have been unable to devise effective approaches to deal with the problem, and have been slow to respond,” Chibani said, noting that although humans cannot interfere in the natural process by which predatory species attack their prey, “they can participate in ensuring that the waters do not become polluted, that fishing activities are regulated, and that ships that are arriving into our seas are closely monitored,” the expert explained.

Chibani added that these vessels typically pick up ballast water in one place and dump it in another while loading and unloading cargo, thus transporting new organisms and marine plants that could adversely affect the receiving waters.

Facing a new reality

On the Levantine coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon is struggling with a similar reality.

The Suez Canal was constructed around 150 years ago, prompting a migration of more than 1,000 species of fish, algae, and mollusks from the Indian and Pacific oceans into the Mediterranean area.

Various Asian sea creatures, like blue crabs, squid, and blue-spotted cornet fish, which have no natural predators, are now observed in Lebanon’s waters. For food, these intruders compete with native species like groupers and red mullets. They also prey on the eggs of other fish.

To flee this danger, native species migrate northward or to deeper waters while fishermen resorted to simply discarding the unwanted species such as catfish, lionfish and puffer fish back into the sea. However, Diaries of the Ocean – a local environmental group – is combating this issue by encouraging restaurants to serve these species instead.

“When the fishermen first told us about the lionfish, they were scared of it,” founder Jina Talj told The Washington Post. “It’s new, it’s scary-looking, it’s intimidating, it’s big, it’s bright, it has a lot of spines.” Her plan was to inform fishermen on the correct methods of capturing the newcomer, promote and persuade restaurants to add it to their menu and properly market it to the public.

For marine biologist Rawan al-Jamal, preventive measures and conservation action are more important than coping and adaptation strategies.

“Last summer, free divers were successful in decreasing the number of these [invasive] creatures significantly. Now it is less abundant,” al-Jamal told Fanack. “When fishermen catch puffer fish, they kill them and throw them back into the sea, reducing their chances of reproduction. Other measures may include monitoring ships and boats for fouling and inspecting or controlling ballast waters from ships.”

Al-Jamal claims that because of its strategic proximity to the sea, Lebanon’s coastal region is under intense anthropogenic pressures, including the privatization of the Maritime Public Domain, pollution (solid waste dumps and wastewater discharges), habitat degradation, erosion and sea filling or land reclamation, sand extraction, port construction (for fishing boats and recreational vessels), and overpopulation exhibited through extensive urbanization. An essential component of the increase is attributable to the tourist resorts’ violations of the marine public domain, which resulted in a considerable retreat of the coastline and decreased public access to the sea.

“Violations on these beaches mean that rocks and vermetid platforms that host various organisms are destroyed. These platforms serve as a place of refuge for species from crabs and other predators,” al-Jamal said. “Many species perish when these habitats are destroyed, and fish no longer have a defense against waves. More violent waves will also have an impact on human life because these rocky surfaces absorb around 70% of the waves.”

What to do?

Though preventative measures are not enough alone, al-Jamal suggests increasing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

To allow the fish to reproduce and mature, these MPAs, she says, should have no-take zones and closing periods where fishing is only permitted during certain times of the year. The MPAs should also have monitoring strategies and early detection programs to help plan and implement effective measures.

“It is also crucial to train local fishermen so that they can manage their fishing cooperatives sustainably locally and reap the benefits of the available resources while maintaining the health of the local fish population,” she added.

Al-Jamal warns that invasive fish and invertebrates pose a serious threat to recreational water activities, making it challenging and even dangerous to swim and sail, even though the threat may appear to only affect fish up to this point.

On the other hand, Chibani states that governments in the MENA region do not place a high priority on biodiversity and that they only appear to care about water quality when the tourism industry is growing and requires proper care, as well as when they invest in desalination projects.

Desalination activities have been particularly problematic in the Gulf region: nearly 50% of worldwide desalination capacity is located in Gulf countries; these plants collect sea water but discharge untreated brine back into the ocean, thus negatively impacting marine biodiversity.

The Climate Change Forum released an alarming report in 2019 stating that by 2090; a third of the marine species in the waters of the Gulf could be eliminated due to rising temperatures, altered salinity and oxygen levels, as well as human practices such as overfishing.

“Research and studies are key to understanding the changing tides of the MENA’s marine diversity; and this is what we’re lacking the most,” Chibani said. “Our approach to species like sharks remains primitive and closer to a fairy-tale look, in which we see them as merely predators but fail to recognize that there is a way to study their environment, behavior, and motives so that we can handle what is to come.”

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