"A second chance for our sea turtles could mean a brighter future for our oceans," writes Dr Omar Al-Attas, head of environmental sustainability at Red Sea Global. In this op-ed piece, he outlines how development can go hand in hand with the conservation of keystone species.
Sea turtles have played a vital role in our oceans for millions of years. Often referred to as the earth’s ancient mariners, they help to maintain the health and balance of our coral reefs and the many creatures that call them home. From consuming out-competing species, like sea sponges, to distributing micronutrients, they are a key component of an ecosystem we rely so heavily on.
But sea turtles are under threat across the globe. The effect of habitat degradation, harvesting of adults and eggs, and accidental entanglement in fishing gear has meant these majestic marine animals have been severely depleted. Recent reports have estimated that overall sea turtle populations have dropped by almost two thirds in the last century.
With climate change and other factors posing additional risks of population losses in the next decades, conservation and rehabilitation projects are essential for protecting and enhancing these extraordinary creatures. The positive impact of such projects can already be seen in the Red Sea. With its vibrant coral reefs and crystal-clear waters, the region is an important habitat for numerous marine animals. And, as an extensive wildlife study led by our team of experienced scientists discovered, it also supports large nesting populations of endangered sea turtle species.
This includes the hawksbill sea turtle, famed for its distinctive shell pattern, as well as one of the world’s largest turtles, the green sea turtle. Both have seen their populations fall dramatically in the last century – with hawksbill numbers declining by 80 per cent and green sea turtle numbers by 90 per cent.
Our surveys, undertaken over last several years, have shown large populations of both species in the waters around The Red Sea and Amaala – two regenerative tourism destinations currently being developed by Red Sea Global on the west coast of Saudi Arabia. The area, which had not been studied to this level before now, was found to be a thriving habitat for the turtles. In 2022 alone, there were 74 hawksbill sea turtle and 145 green sea turtle nesting tracks recorded at Amaala and 251 hawksbill and 613 green sea turtle nesting tracks at The Red Sea. By setting a baseline and by understanding where their key nesting and foraging areas are, we can make interventions that not only conserve these populations, but also help them to grow.
The extensive survey further analysed nesting grounds and the breeding success of bird species, the population status of reef fishes, as well as achieved improved understanding of the carbon sequestering potential of seagrasses. In terms of endangered species sightings, 17 sooty falcon breeding pairs were observed at AMAALA and 48 breeding pairs in The Red Sea and multiple critically endangered Halavi guitarfish juveniles were sighted indicating an important nursery habitat for the species. A pair of orcas was also observed which is exciting news. As a rare visitor to the Red Sea, fewer than ten previous reports were recorded in the area.
In terms of seagrass, the surveys team conducted seagrass rapid assessment surveys at 250 locations across The Red Sea and AMAALA. Overall, ten of the 12 seagrass species found in the Red Sea basin have been encountered in The Red Sea area and seven in AMAALA. Larger species such as Enhalus acoroides, Thalassia hemprichii and, especially, Thalassodendron ciliatum, contribute to substrate stabilisation and sediment accumulation, and hence to enhanced carbon sequestration. Those species have extended root systems that trap sediment and allow them to withstand wave action in mud substrate.
Alongside experts, such as renowned marine and climate scientist Professor Carlos Duarte, we are looking at several initiatives to support local turtle populations and help them flourish. Already we have worked with partners at the National Center for Wildlife and Fakieh Aquarium to rehabilitate turtles we have found that are in distress. Since 2021, we have successfully rescued and released six hawksbill sea turtles back into the wild. These animals were suffering from ‘Floating Syndrome’, probably caused by ingesting plastic, which leaves them vulnerable to boat strikes and unable to properly feed. We already decided to establish our own dedicated rehabilitation program allowing us to respond quickly and effectively in future.
In tandem, we’re looking at how we can support population growth by exploring the best techniques and strategies to improve turtle hatching success rates, such as enhancing the habitat at important nesting beaches and even modifying the land to reduce hazards.
Beyond this, protecting native habitats has been one of the greatest influences on our development decisions. We have put sustainability and regeneration at the heart of everything we do, including how we evaluate each potential site. This means that at locations which are important habitats for Sea Turtles, development is minimised, very carefully managed, or completely avoided.
This includes one of our most spectacular islands Al Waqadi, which would have made a perfect resort location. But when our assessment revealed it was our most important nesting ground for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, there was no question that it had to be protected. The project did not go ahead. Similarly, we are leaving 75 per cent of our site’s island archipelago untouched, with nine islands designated as special conservation zones. This follows an extensive marine spatial planning simulation undertaken in conjunction with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).
Activity such as this has been central to helping us protect and restore the region’s marine biodiversity and ensure the productivity and wellbeing of its coral reefs. It has also been an important step in our regenerative ambition, which includes our target to deliver a 30 per cent net conservation benefit by 2040, in line with our commitment to leaving our surroundings better than when we began our work.
But, while the results of our rehabilitation efforts in the Red Sea illustrates the positive impact we can have on the natural environment, it also serves to highlight the significant challenges facing marine life across the world. We know our blue planet is in crisis. The impact of pollution, climate change, and overfishing are not only evident in diminishing sea turtle numbers but can be seen across our oceans.
Currently, around 2,270 oceanic species are considered globally threatened or endangered. This is a startling figure that continues to rise with each year. If we continue on this trajectory, the outlook is stark for both people and planet.
However, we believe we have an opportunity and a responsibility to turn the tide. Our aim is that our work on Sea Turtles and other key populations can support other global efforts to revitalize our oceans. We also hope that the successful implementation of impactful conservation and enhancement projects will demonstrate the transformative potential of regenerative management to protect and enhance our natural world and the diverse life that it supports.
We understand that achieving this vision is not without challenges. To give us the best chance of creating a brighter future for our oceans – and in line with the United Nations’ SDG Goal 14 (Protect our Oceans) – organisations, governments and developers like Red Sea Global must recognise our shared responsibility to help create a healthy, thriving planet.
Through collective action and investing in initiatives that enact real change, we can help prevent the further loss of our planet’s precious ecosystems and ensure their survival for generations to come.
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