On a sailing boat anchored off Oman’s pristine Daymaniyat Islands, volunteer divers pull on wetsuits, check their scuba tanks, and then take turns plunging into the clear turquoise water. They are diving for a reason: to remove the massive fishing nets damaging an unusually resilient coral reef system that is seen as more likely than most to survive rising sea temperatures.
The reefs, home to a host of marine wildlife, including dolphins and turtles, are a refuge for the area’s migratory birds and fish, as well as vital fish nurseries and habitat for marine plants. However, the damage caused by overfishing and pollution, the impact of climate change, and a lack of effective management threaten their survival.
However, the efforts of individuals like Hasan Farsi and Jenan Al Asfoor are making a difference. Both conservationists work with local fishermen and are a vital link between the community and Oman’s environment ministry. Their goal is to safeguard the coral and other reef ecosystems from artificial threats while allowing tourists to enjoy the natural beauty of these unique habitats.
Farsi dives the Daymaniyat reefs weekly to inspect the damage and synchronize clean-up targets with the environment ministry. He also advocates for better education, encouraging local schools to conduct environmental awareness activities and ensuring that tourists are aware of the impact of their actions.
Al Asfoor leads Reef Check Oman, a group committed to gathering comprehensive data on Oman reefs and collaborating with authorities on drafting and implementing protection policies. However, she acknowledges that the country is still working to improve its monitoring capabilities and that significant gaps in knowledge still need to be discovered.
One of those gaps is a better understanding of the ecology of corals in Oman’s waters. Among the most serious challenges is the spread of the harmful coral-eating starfish Cochlodinium polykrikoides, known to kill many species in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean (Burt et al., 2013). The Oman Sea reefs were especially hard hit during the large-scale harmful algal bloom in 2008/2009, killing fish and corals along a large portion of the Musandam peninsula.
Moreover, the relative coolness of Oman’s waters makes its reefs less vulnerable to global warming than in some other regions. Nevertheless, they are no longer immune to major environmental upheavals, such as the summer 2021 bleaching event and devastating cyclones. Hence, continued and expanded efforts to protect the reefs are crucial. However, they will only be successful if Oman takes the lead in the region in building an evidence base that supports sustainable management of its unique and globally important coral reefs. To do so, it will need to address the key barriers that stand in the way of proactive and data-driven management. This includes conducting a comprehensive baseline assessment of reef status, developing an economic valuation of reef services, and identifying research gaps to support improved policy development and decision-making.