"Life Below The Surface"

Oman’s coral diversity — a paradise beneath the sea

Flanked by strikingly scenic coasts and down in the shallow waters, the coral reefs of Oman are largely uncharted territory — their charm and diversity is yet to be fully explored and enjoyed by residents and tourists alike.

Oman holds out a paradise for coral reef watchers

Some of the reef areas, although containing rare coral communities, are faced with several environmental hazards.

Things are, however, about to change now as implementation of the country’s National Coral Reef Management Plan-1996 is gaining a new momentum in 2001, which as been designated as the Year of Environment. The plan, aimed at restoring and preserving the health and richness of coral reefs, will give a major fillip to the popularity of Oman’s coral reefs.

Blessed with a vast wealth of marine wildlife, Oman holds out a paradise for coral reef watchers.

Coral growth at Cat Island, Muscat

Opportunities for divers, snorkellers and marine biologists, who enjoy watching coral reefs and the vast array of marine wildlife that resides there, are being encouraged and increased.

Some of the most beautiful coral reefs sites of Oman are located in Muscat area, Damaniyat Islands, Bandar Jissah, Bandar Khayran, Fahal Islands, Sharqiya, Barr al Hikman, Masirah Islands, Dhofar, Musandam and Marbadh.

Corals are not just lifeless rocks. “They are animals with a stony skeleton”, explains Eng Mussallam Mubarak al Jabri, head of Marine Pollution Management Department at the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Environment. Reefs are one of the richest habitats for animal life on earth.

Muscat area is rich in corals but the centre of diversity is at Fahal Islands. Ra’s al Hamra is known for a unique coral community.

Fahal Islands in Muscat is a centre of coral diversity

Exposed rocky shores facing north and east is the hub of soft coral growth, while south and west facing shores contain hard coral growth, for example at Cat Island, Cemetery Bay and Fahal Island.

The Damaniyat Islands, about 17-km offshore, support extensive reef development. Damaniyat reefs are typically dominated by a few genera, but at some sites where the assemblage is mixed, coral diversity is known to be high. Damaniyat reefs provide a diverse habitat and feeding grounds for commercially important fish and a high potential value to Oman’s tourist industry, says Mussallam, who being an active diver has watched coral reefs from close quarters.

Sharqiya coast, which used to be an area of luxuriant coral growth, has only a few reef formations now. Much of the previously luxuriant coral growth was destroyed in a storm a few years ago.

Hooni Bay in Dhofar puts up a beautiful spectacle

The fishing industry of Sharqiyah depends on coastal fish stocks, many of which are reliant on shallow water coral environment. Reef areas of this area are also important for turtles, whales, dolphin and seabirds.

At the southern shores of Barr al Hikman coral watchers have found extensive reefs covering kilometres of shallow coastal areas. The reefs of Barr al Hikman are also known for supporting high densities of migrating birds, coastal protection and production of coral sand.

Masirah Islands harbour coral communities along the southwestern shore. Some of the sheltered bays have emerged as important nursery grounds for juvenile fish, found in high densities. Fishermen in Masirah Islands mostly tap the much sought-after reef fish stocks, most notably Emperors and Groupers. Emperors and Groupers, in turn, depend on coral areas for reproduction and feeding. Large turtle populations in Masirah also depend on reef areas.

Coral areas of Dhofar, including Marbadh, Sadh and sheltered bays of Raaha, put up a beautiful spectacle. Dhofar is known for highest coral diversity in the Sultanate.

Efforts are under way to preserve the natural richness of the coral reefs

Moreover, some fish species and reef invertebrates, in addition to the corals of Dhofar, add to the overall biodiversity. Dhofar’s coral areas are important for feeding turtles and a large number of seabirds. The turtles and seabirds add a new dimension to the scenic coastal beauty of the area.

Musandam offers well-developed reef communities in its eastern bays of Jazirat Umm al Ghanam, and Khawrs such as Khawr Ghubb Ali. Although Musandam is not known for coral diversity, some reef species such as Pavona are unique to Musandam and therefore hold national significance.

Importance of Musandam’s reef areas lies in supporting commercially vital juvenile fish stocks. The sea around Musandam is a hub of wildlife, including breeding seabirds, turtles and dolphins.

Thanks to Oman’s National Coral Reef Management Plan, extensive efforts are under way to preserve the natural richness, variety and quality of the country’s extensive coral reef areas.

Protecting the coral reefs of Oman is important because reefs are one of the richest habitats for animal life on earth.

Coral reefs are important feeding areas for marine species

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos has aptly remarked that “the conservation of the environment is the responsibility of all of us — a responsibility that knows no political boundaries”.

Coral reefs are a source of many benefits to Oman: they are a (1) nursery and feeding area for fish and other commercially important species. (2) Provide resource for recreation and tourism. (3) Offer coastal protection and (4) Help conservation of biological diversity and maintenance of marine ecosystem.

Taking care of coral reefs is important because they are of value to fisheries, tourism, recreation, coastal protection, marine biodiversity and marine biology. Coral reefs are used by certain fish, which come to the reefs seasonally to breed and lay their eggs.

Impacts on reefs are caused by both human and natural causes. Some of the key management issues include littering by traders and fishermen in Musandam, which causes pollution to the seabed.

This constrains the potential for eco-tourism. Reef damage is also traceable to the impact of fishing activities. New methods are being worked out by the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Environment to reduce the incidence of lost/abandoned fishing gear, ropes, nets, fish traps and anchors.

Oman, undoubtedly, is emerging as a major destination for ecotourism on the world map, thanks to the charm and diversity of its coral reefs, scenic coasts and Sultanate’s deep concern for environmental quality and cleanliness.

In the last two decades, the Sultanate has achieved an unparalleled record on the environment. The establishment of the Council for Conservation of the Environment and Prevention of Pollution (CCEPP) in March 1979 was a major step.

The drafting of National Conservation Strategy in 1996 was another milestone in environmental protection of Oman. Both marine and air pollution are carefully and regularly monitored. The designation of 2001 as the Year of Environment would give a further push to environmental issues and awareness in the country.

* Adapted from Oman Observer. Nizwa.NET is not responsible for errors.