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Egypt- Samadai Reef Time area closures and zoning to protect resting spinner dolphins

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History and context

Spinner dolphins are one of the more frequently observed species in the Red Sea, where they sometimes attract the attention of watersports vessels operating in the well-known dive resorts off the coast of Egypt. One such resort is Marsa Alam, where in the 1990’s dive operators first began to take notice of a predictable group of spinner dolphins frequenting Samadai Reef, about 6km offshore from the mainland resort.  Further investigation revealed that these dolphins adhered to the same patterns as those of spinner dolphins studied in Hawaii: moving offshore at night to forage on prey moving up toward the surface with a diel migration, and retreating to the protection of sheltered bays or reefs during the day where they can rest and recover with little fear of predation1-4. The population of dolphins using the reef on a daily basis has been estimated to stable at roughly 200 individuals5,6.   Photo identification studies show little exchange with neighbouring reef areas, and the dolphins demonstrate a clear preference for a shallow and protected area in the lagoon’s northern portion, that has come to be known locally as “dolphin house”7

Up through the late 1990s the dolphins were viewed only as a bonus attraction to divers and snorkelers traveling to the site from Marsa Alam.  However, between 1999 and 2003, word began to spread and several factors combined to drastically increase the number of snorkelers coming to interact with spinner dolphins on Samadai Reef7.  Tourism boomed in Marsa Alam, which became less of a diving specialty resort, and more of a general marine watersport/snorkeling resort. Dolphins were approachable by snorkelers in relatively protected and shallow waters, making “swim with dolphin” experiences accessible even to those with little swimming and no diving experience.  At the same time, word spread up and down the coast, and as specialised Red Sea tour operators became increasingly aware of the dolphins’ predictable presence in a scenic location, boat loads of hundreds of tourists started to arrive from neighroubring resorts as far north as Hurghada7

By the summer of 2003, as many as 500-800 tourists were brought to swim with the dolphins in the resting lagoon at Samadai each day.  Their contact with the dolphins was entirely unregulated, and many observers feared for the well-being and safely of the dolphins, the tourists, and the sustainability of the dolphin watching industry7.  In 2003 government authorities took the bold decision to impose a complete suspension of all visits to the Samadai Reef and engaged in a consultation process to create a management system that would protect the dolphins while still allowing some level of tourism activities to occur on the reef, which hosts a few popular diving and snorkeling sites as well as the resting dolphins.

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Regulations and management measures

In 2003 a multi-pronged management scheme was proposed by researchers7 and accepted by the government for implementation from 2004 onward3.  This management scheme employed a combination of strategies, including zoning, time area closures, a permitting system, approach guidelines and a cap to the maximum number of tourists allowed to visit the reef each day:

This management scheme was originally coordinated by a branch of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. However, since 2013 ticketing, enforcement and operations have been the responsibility of the NGO, Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA). This NGO has also issued a code of conduct, later formalized into a Decree enforced in the Red Sea Governorate, for vessel and swimmer interactions with wild dolphins. Failure to respect this code can incur a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (approx. 560 USD).  The code of conduct for swimmers includes the following:

  • All swimmers MUST wear fins, mask, snorkel and a lifejacket. 
  • Enter gently into the water, without jump or excessive splashes.
  • Once in the water, always keep quiet and swim gently using your fins only.
  • Always swim on the side of the group (parallel) and never dive down from top.
  • DO NOT chase dolphins. Let them approach and decide how to interact.
  • The use of scooters while swimming close to dolphins is strictly forbidden.
  • Avoid any loud noises (in particular shouts and whistles).
  • Touching dolphins is strictly forbidden. The risk of exchanging diseases is very likely.
  • NEVER throw trash in the water.
  • NEVER feed the animals.

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Lessons learned

The management approach adopted by the authorities in the case of Samadai Reef presents one of the best available examples of the adoption of a precautionary approach to whale watching. In 2004 very little precise information was available about the population of dolphins or the exact nature of the impacts of the swimming tourism on their well-being.  However authorities used common sense to surmise that the large number of tourists and unregulated contact with the dolphins had the potential to cause harm.  A conservative management approach was implemented, using almost every regulatory tool available3, and 13 years later, the approach is proving to have many strengths:

  • Swift action by authorities, who reached out to the research community for help, resulted in the almost immediate shift from an uncontrolled, potentially harmful swim-with dolphin industry to a carefully controlled and well monitored practice.  The imposition of a complete suspension of all activities prior to the introduction of the new management scheme may have helped to re-set the clock and make operators realize that there would be no returning to ‘business as usual’.
  • The new management scheme included a mechanism to fund monitoring and enforcement. This is often the aspect of management that is most lacking in whale-watching locations around the globe. The allocation of surveillance vessels and the necessary personnel to conduct monitoring activities is expensive, but essential to the success of any government imposed management scheme.
  • The dolphin population and swim-with-dolphin activities have also been monitored by researchers over the years. Studies have generally concluded that the management scheme is working as it should with very few infractions3,4, and that the population appears to be stable and healthy, with no obvious signs of stress, decline, or movement away from the reef5,8.

While the successes of this approach should be celebrated, researchers and managers urge caution and recommend that:

  • Long-term monitoring and research continues to ensure that expansion of tourism or the cumulative effects of existing levels of tourism over time do not have long-term negative impacts to the spinner dolphins at Samadai reef or more broadly to cetaceans in the Egyptian Red Sea.5
  • Continuous monitoring should allow for adaptive management and adjustments to regulations, visiting hours, permits, or tourist numbers should the dolphins’ behaviour or status indicate that a change is required.
  • Strengthen education and awareness raising about dolphin conservation needs in order to fully communicate the significance of this conservation initiative to all users.
  • Similar management measures could be put in place in other parts of the Egyptian Red Sea coastline, as there are many sites where dolphin-watching tourism is not as well-regulated as it is in Samadai, and there are serious concerns for the potential impacts on the affected dolphin populations9.

For more information about management of dolphin watching on Samadai Reef consult:

Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association HEPCA:

http://www.hepca.org/research/projects/protect-red-sea-dolphins

Panorama:  http://panorama.solutions/en/s...

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Referencias

Mostrar/Ocultar referencias
  1. Norris, K. S., Wursig, B., Wells, R. S. & Wursig, M. The Hawaiian spinner dolphin.  (University of California Press, 1994).
  2. Tyne, J. A., Johnston, D. W., Christiansen, F. & Bejder, L. Temporally and spatially partitioned behaviours of spinner dolphins: implications for resilience to human disturbance. Royal Society Open Science 4, doi:10.1098/rsos.160626 (2017).
  3. Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Hanafy, M. H., Fouda, M. M., Affi, A. & Costa, M. Spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris) resting habitat in Samadai Reef (Egypt, Red Sea) protected through tourism management. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 89, 211-216 (2008).
  4. Shawky, A. M. & Afifi, A. Behaviour of Spinner Dolphin at Sha'ab Samadai, Marsa Alam, Red Sea, Egypt. Egyptian Journal of Biology 10 (2008).
  5. Cesario, A. Population ecology of spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) in an offshore resting habitat in the Red Sea PhD thesis, Hong Kong University, (2016).
  6. Shawky, A. M., Alwany, M. A., Zakaria, S. & El-Etreby, S. G. Estimation of the abundance of the spinner dolphin Stenella longirostris using photo identification technique in Samadai Reef, Red Sea, Egypt. Catrina: The International Journal of Environmental Sciences 10, 61-73 (2015).
  7. Notarbartolo di Sciara, G. Samadai Dolphin House: considerations on a tourist impact mitigation plan. Report to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, Cairo, 13 (2003).
  8. Fumagalli, M. Conservation of the spinner dolphin in the Egyptian Red Sea PhD thesis, University of Otago, (2016).
  9. Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Kerem, D. & Smeenk, C. Cetaceans of the Red Sea. 86 (Convention on Migratory Species, 2017).

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