Arabian "Sea Cows" Going Hungry?

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November 10, 2009—Along the coast of Abu Dhabi, development is spilling into the sea, smothering the sea grass beds that nourish rare marine mammals called dugongs.

Video by Public Television's Wild Chronicles, from National Geographic Mission Programs

Unedited Transcript:

FROM THE SCULPTED BEAUTY OF DESSERT DUNES TO THE UNDERSEA REALMS OF THE PERSIAN GULF THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES IS A STUDY IN CONTRASTS.

AND WHILE MOST PEOPLE ASSOCIATE ARABIA WITH DESERT LIFE THE REGION IS IN FACT TEEMING WITH MARINE ANIMALS AS WELL.

AND PERHAPS NONE MORE INTRIGUING THAN THE DUGONG.

ITS NICKNAME IS THE SEA COW. AND LIKE ITS NAMESAKE, IT SPENDS HOURS EACH DAY GRAZING.

DUGONGS PLY THE WARM SHALLOW WATERS OFF THE COAST FEEDING ALONG SEEMINGLY ENDLESS BEDS OF WAVING SEA GRASS.

THEIR CYLINDER- SHAPED BODIES MEASURE MORE THAN 10 FEET IN LENGTH AND FULLY GROWN THEY CAN WEIGH IN AT OVER 800 POUNDS

IN THE SEA GRASS BEDS THEY SEEM BULKY PLACID AND CONTENT.

BUT CONSERVATIONISTS ARE WORRIED.

SOME OF THESE CREATURES SHARE THE COASTLINE WITH THE LARGEST OF THE EMIRATES ABU DHABI.

OVER A MILLION PEOPLE LIVE HERE AND THAT NUMBER IS SWELLING BY OVER 50,000 EACH YEAR.

NEW BUILDINGS SPROUT FROM THE SANDS AND ENGINEERS DRIVE BACK THE SEA TO HOUSE THE BURGEONING POPULATION.

ALL THIS PRIME REAL ESTATE COMES AT A COST NOT JUST TO THE BUYERS BUT TO THE MARINE ENVIRONMENT AS WELL.

DREDGING AND CONSTRUCTION LEACH SILT INTO THE GULF WHICH CHOKES CORALS.

WORSE FOR THE DUGONGS THE SILT SMOTHERS THE SEA GRASS COVERING THEIR FOOD SUPPLY WITH A BLANKET OF DEBRIS AND POLLUTION.

THE SEA GRASS BEDS ARE DYING.

ITS A POTENTIAL THREAT BECAUSE THESE SO-CALLED SEACOWS NEED TO CONSUME HUGE AMOUNTS OF SEAGRASS IN ORDER TO SURVIVE.

THE UNDERWATER VEGETATION HAS A VERY LOW NUTRITIONAL VALUE. WHAT DUGONGS LACK IN QUALITY THEY MAKE UP FOR IN VAST QUANTITIES.

AN ADULT CAN EAT ALMOST 70 POUNDS OF GRASS IN A SINGLE DAY.

ITS NOT ONLY DUGONGS THAT SUFFER.

THE SEA GRASSES ALSO PROVIDE FOOD AND SHELTER FOR THE ENDANGERED GREEN TURTLE.

AND THE SEA TURTLE IN TURN PROVIDES TRANSPORTATION FOR FISH CALLED REMORAS (RE-MORE-AHS).

SO WITH THE SEA GRASS BEDS BURIED ENTIRE ECOSYSTEMS OF MARINE CREATURES FEEL THE IMPACT.

BUT IN THE EMIRATE OF ABU DHABI, ITS THE DUGONG POPULATION THAT IS MOST IN THE SPOTLIGHT.

THE SPECIES HAS ALREADY BEEN LISTED AS VULNERABLE TO EXTINCTION.

AND THIS IS PART OF THE SECOND-LARGEST POPULATION REMAINING IN THE WORLD. TO LOSE THESE DUGONGS WOULD BE A FURTHER BLOW TO AN ALREADY BELEAGUERED SPECIES.

TO FIND OUT WHAT IT WILL TAKE TO PROTECT THE DUGONGS A GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION CALLED THE ENVIRONMENT AGENCY ABU DHABI OR E.A.D. HAS BEEN ASKED TO INVESTIGATE.

THE FIRST PRIORITY IS HEAD COUNT. MORE THAN 2000 DUGONGS SPEND THEIR SUMMERS NEAR ABU DHABI. IN THE WINTER THEIR NUMBERS SWELL TO ALMOST 3000.

WHEN A DEAD DUNGONG WASHES UP ON SHORE, A TEAM OF SCIENTISTS MOVE IN TO EXAMINE THE REMAINS.

FIRST THEY MEASURE THE BODY AND THEN TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS.

WITH THE DATA COLLECTED, SCIENTISTS TRY TO DETERMINE THE CAUSE OF DEATH.

MANY OF THE ANIMALS ARE KILLED BY BOATS. OTHERS DROWN WHEN THEY BECOME ENTANGLED IN FISHING NETS

NOW THAT THE AUTHORITIES KNOW WHERE THE DUGONGS ARE AND HOW THEYRE BEING IMPACTED THEY CAN CONTINUE TO MAKE PLANS TO KEEP THEM SAFE.

WHEN A LOT OF PRESSURE CAME INTO THE MARINE ENVIRONMENT THE POPULATION DECLINED SO TODAY WE HAVE AN ESTABLISHED STRATEGY FOR CONSERVATION OF THE DUGONG.'

A MAJOR PART OF THE CONSERVATION AREA IS A MARINE PROTECTED AREA IN THE REGION WITH THE DENSEST POPULATION OF DUGONGS.

ITS ONE OF THE LARGEST SANCTUARIES OF ITS KIND IN THE MIDDLE EAST. THE GOVERNMENT HAS ALSO ENACTED LAWS THAT REDUCE THE BOAT SPEED IN SOME AREAS.

ITS ALSO BANNED CERTAIN TYPES OF FISHING NETS THAT CAUSED THE MOST DAMAGE TO DUGONGS.

AND EDUCATION AWARENESS PROGRAMS, SPONSORED BY THE SAVE OUR SEAS FOUNDATION, GIVE LOCAL CHILDREN THE CHANCE TO LEARN ABOUT THE DUGONGS AND THE ENTIRE GULF ECOSYSTEM.

ABU DHABI IS WORKING TO MAKE SURE THE DUGONG HAS A FUTURE

AND THAT WHAT HAPPENS IN THE SANDS OF ARABIA DOESNT COMPLETELY SPILL INTO ITS UNDERSEA REALM.

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