Thursday, December 24, 2009

Arabian Whale Shark Research Programme Conference & Workshop

The Arabian peninsula has long been known for whale sharks and the Straits of Hormuz, the pinch-point between the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and the Gulf of Oman has long been a seasonal hot-spot in the region. Local film-maker and conservationist Jonathan Ali Khan became transfixed with the plight of sharks in general around the Arabian peninsula and as a part of a new documentary series researched the status of whale sharks in the region only to find that very little was known…. And so the concept of a regional group to coordinate information on the whale shark came into existence.

After many months talking with people from the Indian Ocean region and with David Rowat from MCSS in particular, the idea to form an Arabian Whale Shark Research Programme (AWSRP) with a regional conference and technical workshop came into fruition. In a matter of just a few months Jonathan was able to motivate sufficient support to organise the conference: the principle sponsor was the Save Our Seas Foundation with the venue host and sponsor being Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, Fujirah and with support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Emirates Diving Association (EDA), the Kuwait Environmental Research and Awareness Group (KERA), Scuba Dubai, Al Boom Diving and Wild Planet Productions.

The meeting was held on the 11th & 12th of December with the overall aim to create an event that would act as a platform of communication and as a forum of discussion between researchers studying Arabian Sea whale sharks to determine relationships and connections between Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean whale shark populations. In order to present the current status of whale sharks, researchers and conservationists from all relevant Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean hot-spots, including Oman, Djibouti, Maldives, Seychelles, India, Pakistan/Baluchistan, UAE and Kuwait attended the event

The meeting was held under the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the Crown Prince of Fujirah who attended the opening ceremony and introductory speeches. His Highness is a scuba diver and was keen to support this initiative which was being launched form this forum in his Emirate.

Participants at the AWSRP conference at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, Fujirah

Dr. David Rowat from MCSS delivered the keynote presentation setting out what was known, what was still unknown and how an AWSRP could potentially assist in completing both the Indian Ocean and global picture on the species.

The National Newspaper from Dubai wrote: Dr David Rowat, the chairman of the Marine Conservation Society in the Seychelles, said the regional database would yield valuable information that could fill a “knowledge gap” about the creatures. “It has been suggested that the Arabian region might be important as a pupping [birthing] or mating ground but, as yet, we do not know,” he said. “It is too early to say. It is certainly a missing piece of the jigsaw and that piece could be important.”

There was strong support for the formation of some type of network with national information gathering and collating facilities; so far, the Emirates Diving Association, Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, and the Kuwait Environmental Research and Awareness Group have agreed to help set up such structures with the end goal of developing a database of whale sharks from the region that would also contribute to the global database on EcOcean.

Brad Norman, originator of the Ecocean database, was quoted by the National Newspaper: The data, Mr Norman said, could help scientists in a number of ways. “You can start doing the science on finding the actual number of whale sharks visiting an actual country. And, if we continue this from year to year, we can get an idea of whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing. This is a way of tracking whale sharks by using a non-invasive method.”

So the Arabian programme is off to a good start and we look forward to lots of interesting results from them in the years to come!

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