What's killing dugongs in Abu Dhabi? The answer is unequivocal: fishing nets. According to the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD), drowning after becoming entangled in abandoned, lost or illegal fishing nets is the number one cause of dugong deaths in the city's coastal waters.

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Illegal or abandoned nets are the leading cause of dugong deaths in the Gulf. Image: The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD)

With over 2,800 dugongs (Dugong dugon) lumbering their way through United Arab Emirates (UAE) waters, the region is home to the world's second-highest dugong population after Australia. These strange-looking marine mammals should be safe here: their foraging habitats and migratory routes are protected under law. What's more, the UAE is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species and therefore has an obligation to protect them. 

But dugongs, the only surviving representatives of a once-diverse family, are increasingly threatened by habitat loss and human activity. The EAD runs an ongoing dugong monitoring programme in the region, routinely tracking all reported dugong deaths and their causes. And the organisation's concern about the species is growing. 

Between 2000 and 2014, it recorded 153 dugong deaths. The main cause of mortality over that period was drowning in fishing nets (72.5%), followed by vessel strikes (15.7%). But look at the last five years also, and death by drowning emerges as an even more dominant cause, responsible for 85% of dugong deaths.

“These figures once again very clearly reaffirm the vulnerability of these majestic animals to human threats such as being caught in discarded fishing nets, impact with boats, marine pollution, combined with a decline of its critical natural habitat – seagrass beds,” says H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of EAD, in a press release.

Drowning in nets is the main cause of dungong deaths in other parts of the world too, including in Australian waters. So what makes the animals so vulnerable to entanglement? Much of it has to do with their distinctive diet: the plump vegetarians are called 'sea cows' for good reason, since they spend much of their time grazing on seagrass meadows. Their seagrass dependency means they suffer when these precious habitats become degraded. It also puts them right in the path of the nets. 

In the winter months when seagrass beds are most abundant, dugongs congregate in larger numbers to feast. But so do the fishermen. Fishing nets known as 'hiyali' are used illegally during this period to catch kingfish – in the very the same shallow waters that harbour extensive seagrass meadows that draw the dugongs in. Not surprisingly, dugong drowning deaths increase at this time of year.

Sadly, because the fishing method is so lucrative, fishermen continue to use the 'hiyali' nets despite knowing their activities are illegal and cause harm to the dugongs.

The EAD has urged local communities to support its efforts to protect the species, and to report sightings of entangled individuals. “The protection of dugong habitats will continue to be a priority for Abu Dhabi. We are focused on ensuring that Abu Dhabi’s waters are managed in a way which helps us to maintain the species populations by ensuring the integrity of its key habitats and marine ecosystems,” Al Mubarak adds.

Top header image: Christian Haugen, Flickr