By Nancy Papathanasopoulou
A few weeks ago, the Kuwaiti press featured an article regarding a Hawksbill turtle dying a horrible death, dragged by a yacht to the beach, tied on a rope, for who knows how many miles, at what speed or for what reason. In the era of Internet and environmental awareness campaigns, some people still are reigned by ignorance of the importance of marine biodiversity and the value of each living wild animal. This needs to change, real fast.
Invited by Mrs Amani AL-Yaqout, marine scientist at the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research, my colleague Alan F. Rees, PhD fellow on Arabian Gulf sea turtle satellite telemetry (University of Exeter) and I arrived in Kuwait for two weeks, in the framework of a consultancy to hopefully result in a sea turtle conservation project in Kuwait with the leadership of this national scientific organization.
Throughout this most hospitable visit, Amani, Alan and I shared the most interesting information regarding sea turtles in the region and more specifically in Kuwait, where Alan and I were part of the three-year Kuwait Turtle Conservation Project, sponsored by TOTAL Foundation and TOTAL Kuwait and in cooperation with the Voluntary Work Center, The Scientific Center and the Kuwaiti Coast Guard. Our cooperation involved visiting the turtles in the field as well, discovering important sea turtle nesting in Qaru island on the part of Green turtles, as well as an especially low nesting frequency year on behalf of critically endangered Hawksbill turtles, in both islands Qaru and Umm Al-Maradim, where Hawksbills like to nest in addition to some mainland beaches in Zour and Khairan.
It was, however, KISR's authority in fisheries, which was most enlightenening for Alan and me. KISR researchers trawl often in order to determine a variety of features regarding fish stocks in the country, and according to the scientists' findings, research is carried out to support the fish capital towards multiple directions. In preliminary discussions with scientists and technicians under Amani's guidance and leadership, we found out that some turtles are caught in fishing gear throughout the year in Kuwait, which could be a reason to question the efficiency of the common fishing gear in terms of bycatch. Talking to veteran KISR fieldwork expert and photographer Abdulrahman Abdulgaffar Yusef revealed that, once again, a picture is worth a thousand words. With a very quick search through his archive, Abdulrahman found us a Loggerhead turtle caught on a trawler about 25 years ago. And from only five years ago, he produced for us photos of an adult Green turtle on Failaka Island, held hostage in a hadra by the low tide.
A hadra is a coastal fish trap, traditional to Kuwait and to some other Arabian Gulf countries. It entails setting up a barrier of reeds around a limited area off the coast. At the end of the barrier, an enclosure made of two parts is erected. The bigger part is called "Al Housh", followed by a smaller one called "Al Ser", which lies at the limits of ebb tides. There are many hadras constructed along the seashores of Failaka Island and in past years all along the shores of mainland Kuwait as well.
During low tides, fishermen collect fish, which are trapped in the hadra. Biodiversity East researchers had been told by locals in 2009 that turtles often get caught in there and are often harvested for food by fishermen, who are mostly unaware of these animals' worldwide protection status. Rays, sharks, seabirds and small dolphins - resident populations of Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea) seem to be part of the island's marine wildlife - often get caught in the hadra as well, dying a slow and purposeless death only to be discarded as "useless" by the fishermen who are interested in what are considered "edible fish".
The geographical area of the island, and Kuwait in general, has suffered major ecological disasters, such as the massive oil spills following the Gulf War of 1990, the fires of the oil wells set by invading Iraqi forces and currently the raw sewage crisis which began in September 2009 and is ongoing, with unknown consequences on the marine environment of the country.
Ten years ago, hadra were common all along the coastline of Kuwait but acknowledging the severe damage on marine wildlife the government banned them by law. Nowadays, special permits are needed for owning hadras and the population has been discouraged from using them. Very few are being encountered now on the mainland. But Failaka island and nearby islet Miskan are exempted from this law and Biodiversity East team members encountered fifteen on Failaka and six on Miskan. Kuwait is a wealthy Gulf country where professional and recreational fishing are very popular. But would it be time to exercise more sustainable fishing methods operating their nets using BRDs (Bycatch Reduction Devices), and a possible further restriction of hadra fish traps?
With the marine environment under such stress in the Gulf and in Kuwait itself, it is hoped that the use of hadra or any unsustainable fishing practice shall soon be abandoned, giving wildlife the chance it deserves in regenerating and surviving the many existing trials of life the trying waters of the Gulf are ensuring for them. Government and NGOs, under the leadership of KISR, should cooperate and raise an awareness campaign preceding an eventual legal and institutional framework to address this serious issue.
Nancy Papathanasopoulou, Environmental Law and Management expert, Biodiversity East, www.bio-e.org