Guardians of Ras Ghanada: Abu Dhabi's most vibrant coral reef
Coral reefs are among the UAE’s most biologically-diverse habitats. Besides their conservation and aesthetic value, they are important for fisheries and coastal protection. Ras Ghanada is Abu Dhabi’s most vibrant reef but needs to be protected from development future generations.
Rough weather has prevented Dr John Burt from visiting the coral reef in Ras Ghanada, near the border with Dubai, for several months. In that time the marine biologist has been growing increasingly impatient.
Strong winds throughout April, May and June prevented him from venturing underwater, until July 2 when a trip to the reef – a long, narrow strip that runs parallel to the mainland for several kilometres – was finally possible.
Located close to the town of Ghantoot, about 90 kilometres northwest of the capital, Ras Ghanada is one of Abu Dhabi’s most important reefs. But Dr Burt had been looking forward to more than simply admiring the expanses of brown, orange and pink corals.
A regular diver on the reef since 2010 as part of routine monitoring carried out in partnership with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (Ead), Dr Burt’s time on dry land made him eager to check the coral before the advance of the summer heat.
Sea temperatures are expected to be warmer this year because of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, a cyclical periodic shift in the Pacific Ocean which affects weather around the world.
In 1996-98, the phenomenon killed some 90 per cent of Gulf corals. Having a clear picture of the state of the reef before and after warmer sea temperatures will yield valuable information, he said.
So far everything is consistent, Dr Burt said.
“There is nothing out of sorts at the moment,” said the scientist, who is an assistant professor at New York University – Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and head of the marine biology laboratory.
During the dive, Dr Burt and university assistants surveyed fish living close to the reef and took photographs of the seafloor at every three metres along several transects floating above the corals.
Some of the corals were already showing signs of reaction to the warmer temperatures by losing colour, a phenomenon know as bleaching, but Dr Burt said the level was normal for this time of year.
If El Nino significantly warms the water off the UAE coastline this year, Dr Burt will have a clearer picture of the coral reef ‘before and after’.
There is good reason to monitor the coral carefully. Its sheer size and its large percentage of live coral cover make it important to the UAE, Dr Burt said.
“This reef is the most extensive reef in the Arabian Gulf side of the UAE,” he said.
On the other hand, the reef is close to the breakwater of Khalifa Port, which was officially opened in 2012.
Before the project started, conservationists voiced concerns about the possible impact of construction and the port’s daily operations.
In 2007, the Emirates Wildlife Society – World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF) published a study, carried out in partnership with Ead, which highlighted Ras Ghanada as “the best and healthiest reef in Abu Dhabi”.
“The results of the initial study were shared with the Abu Dhabi authorities and were integrated in the design and development plans of Khalifa Port,” said Marina Antonopoulou, EWS-WWF marine programme manager.
“We always encourage companies who have a direct impact on our seas to implement environmental protection measures and best practices to protect our marine environment. This doesn’t only apply to heavy industry but also the tourism and energy sectors,” she said.
The Abu Dhabi Ports Company and Ead were unable to share information about monitoring and protection measures.
However, Dr Burt’s work is so far showing encouraging results for the future of the reef.
“We have not seen any significant changes on the reef, one way or another; it looks really stable,” he said.
However, he recommended that Ras Ghanada be declared a protected site to shield it from further industrial development in the area.
“Going into the future, you have to look at the scale of cumulative impact of more development,” he said.
Ms Antonopoulou expressed a similar opinion. “With severe climate fluctuations affecting coral diversity and health, coupled with increasing pressures from human development, it is important to consider protecting important coral areas with rich diversity, such as Ras Ghanada,” she said.