Human activity cause of coral damage Tolerance to heat makes Kuwait coral reefs unique

TO some of us, our environment might not be a concern, but to others it is. The Kuwaiti Diving Team leader Mohammed Al-Kharafi and his team of volunteers are some of those people that care and strive to make our environment cleaner, and generally creating a better place for future generations. Obstacles and hardship are things anyone will face when trying to achieve a goal, but when it comes to Mohamed and his team, these obstacles might be bigger than expected, whether it’s caused by the government or the public or the mere task itself. Nonetheless, the goal is set, the vision is clear.

Question: What is your role and responsibilities in the team?
Answer: I’m responsible for any scientific aspect of any project the team undertakes, as well as general support on projects.

Q: What does the Kuwaiti Diving Team do?
A: We salvage sunken ships and boats to prevent them from further harming the marine environment, cleaning polluted beaches and other marine environment and more challenging tasks like dealing with certain animals, endangered species or assessing the ecological functionality of a certain environment or ecosystem, relying on my scientific background and experience to handle and solve the issue at hand.

Q: Give us a brief history of the team.
A: The team was established on Dec 21, 1991, right after the Iraqi invasion. At that time, the team’s main purpose was to salvage sunken boats caused by the invasion, which caused navigational hazards. The task took the team several years to fulfill, however the team did not-stop there, they expanded their activities by creating artificial reefs, cleaning beaches, exploring certain areas of the Kuwait bay and documenting marine species and so on.

Q: What was the reason behind expanding the team’s activities after fulfilling the task the team was founded to deal with?
A: At the beginning, the team had a goal, which was salvaging sunken boats and ships, with the years taken to fulfill this goal, the team gained more members, gained more experience and developed a diversity of skills.
For example, salvaging ships is simple physics, but with experience you tend to learn about the marine species, therefore we expanded our activities and documented underwater species, photographing corals and identifying them.  
Since the team members are mostly volunteers, we have the energy to make a difference and help our country in any way we can. That’s why the team did not stop at salvaging ships.

Q: Are all the members of the team volunteers? Or do you recruit certain people with certain skills?
A: We are all volunteers and we do not recruit anyone, anyone is welcome to join, young, old, experienced or not.

Q: Don’t you need to have a diving license to join?
A: No, you don’t need to dive to join us, it might restrict your participation in some activities, but that’s it. For example, instead of diving you would be with the surface team, helping with the air tanks and what not.

Q: Have you collaborated with other diving teams or organization outside the country?
A: Yes we did, we have worked with other teams on projects in the past. We have connections with other teams but we don’t necessarily work on the same projects, I am currently drafting a plan to intensify our connections and relations with other organizations and establishing a whole network, and hopefully we can all work together in the near future, and try to emphasize the importance of our marine ecosystem.

Q: Tell us about the Coral Reefs in Kuwait.
A: Coral Reefs in general are the most productive and biodiversed ecosystem in the marine environment, and maybe in the world.
The biodiversity that the coral reefs possess is a great deal.
Speaking from my background, coral reefs in Kuwait are degrading, there are too many negative elements affecting the Kuwaiti coral reefs.

Q: How many kinds of corals do we have here in Kuwait and is it different in any way?
A: We have approximately 35 species of corals here in Kuwait, and our reefs are not diverse in comparison to other countries, however what makes our coral reefs in Kuwait more distinctive than others, is its tolerance to heat.
Coral reefs around the world tend to bleach when temperatures reach around 28 or 29 degrees but corals here in Kuwait are still healthy even when temperatures reach over 30 to 33 degrees. Environmental effects on the reefs are high, and somehow Kuwaiti reefs tolerate it and have adapted to it, however no reef can adapt or tolerate human effects.

Q: What is the main reason for the declining state of the coral reefs in Kuwait?
A: There is no one reason or factor for the decline, there are multiple factors that cause something called a cascading effect, where all these factors work together and cause a big impact. We can categorize all of this under “Human Nature,” for example; I have seen 100- year-old corals flipped upside down as a result of fishermen’s bad anchoring, and other physical damage done by recreational fishermen like “ghost fishing”.
The term Ghost Fishing was introduced in 1987 by the FAO, the term refers to any lost or discarded fishing equipment that continues to catch or impair the movement of marine animals, ultimately causing their deaths.
The damage done by humans to the coral reefs is devastating, it is going to take decades for the coral reefs to restore themselves, granting we eliminate further damage, some corals grow 1cm a year and some grow 1mm a year, it’s an extremely slow process to restoration.

Q: Does global warming affect the coral reefs here in Kuwait?
A: Yes, when we were in Abu Dhabi, head of the workshop Dr John Burt raised an important topic, he said that most coral scientists are heading to the Gulf to study the coral reefs in the region, trying to understand how it’s developing its tolerance to high temperatures, taking global warming into account. Also the increase of carbon dioxide tends to make sea water more acidic, which is harmful to the corals, yet the coral reefs are showing signs of development and are tolerating it, that means that these reefs are evolving to adapt to these conditions, but the question remains, are they evolving fast enough to survive all this? and to what extent? One of the topics of the workshop in Abu Dhabi was the development of a single monitoring network to understand what’s going on. We are all sharing the Gulf, what happens in Kuwait will effect Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and all the countries in the region.

Q: Where are the Coral Reefs in Kuwait located? And are they damaged in anyway?
A: We have about 11 patches of coral reefs in Kuwait, the most diverse corals are located in the islands of Um Al-Maradim, Kubar and Garoh, Garoh being the most diverse of the three, and Kubar in my opinion and some people might disagree, is the most damaged, since it’s the most accessible island for the people. On the other hand, the coral reefs in Um Al-Maradim have been extensively damaged when the Minister of Interior at that time decided to build a security station, which required them to remove a large amount of corals, significantly damaging the reef.
This is where a debate comes in, between environmental concerns and security concerns, the decision must be balanced to achieve the best of both concerns.

Q: In your opinion, is there a balanced decision that will both achieve security whilst not damaging the coral reefs?
A: Yes, but its not easy to achieve this balance, specially in Kuwait, speaking from my professional point of view, when it comes to decision making that have multiple factors in concern, the environmental factor is the least taken in concern. The reason is because decision makers look at the short term result, and since any decision that will benefit the environment will only bear result in the long term, decision makers tend to neglect it.
This is one of the challenges that we face, trying to send this message to the decision makers upstairs, and it is not an easy task.

Q: What can the government do to help your cause and the environment?
A: Lets be honest, most of the Kuwaiti people, are only concerned with the parliament nowadays, short term concerns, next three or four months, no one is concerned about the next 20 or 30 years. A lot of environmental issues we are facing right now is all caused by decisions made without considering the -long term affect, for example, several years ago we were called in, to save a turtle that got stuck at one of the power plants, which was also a desalination plant, after saving the turtle I looked around and noticed the massive filters that sucks in the water for the desalination process, and these filters were literally filled with shrimps, these are massive filters, so you can imagine the amount of shrimp caught there, wasted economical and food recourse, I don’t know how many tons of shrimps are wasted a day but that’s easily calculable, now imagine the number of shrimp caught and wasted since the plant was built. The conclusion is that the desalination plant was built on a shrimp breeding ground and nursery, they thought about electricity and water, the location was chosen and the decision was made without consideration to the environmental factors, this was a long time ago, and sadly they still do.

Q: What about the Kuwaiti public? Are they as difficult as the government?
A: Yes, some are unaware, some are careless and some are both.
There is a concept that I personally adapt, I call it the SOS concept, it stands for “Sense or Stick,” you either talk sense into them or use the stick, a metaphor for being strict in regulation and punishment.
For example, as environmentalists we studied everything we can about the environment but there is something important that we were not taught, its something we call the “Human Dimension,” it’s the understanding of how humans react in certain situations, what makes them do things, what makes this guy throw his garbage on the floor while this guy throws his in a garbage bin. We have to understand human nature, which is basically the main cause of damage to our environment.
Singapore is considered to be the country that has the harshest penalty for littering, you get fined around 200 to 300 dollars. Now me being a Kuwaiti man in Singapore, I’ll think twice before I throw garbage on the floor, ill take it into consideration, I will think about it, now if you ask me what’s the penalty for throwing garbage on the ground here in Kuwait? I don’t know, if there is one? I don’t know about it.

Q: What do you think the public should do to decrease and stop the damage being done to our marine environment?
A: We have to work in two levels to achieve this, one is awareness, and two is regulation and law. For instance, Mohamed is a well educated young man, he has that self discipline, so when he has something to throw away, he will go to the garbage bin, that’s awareness. But not everyone is like that, now let’s say that another person doesn’t care about the environment but there is a strict regulation or law that makes him throw his trash in the garbage bin? He will abide by it whether he likes it or not. So you have to work on both ways, which move in parallel with each other. Increasing awareness and enforcing laws and regulations, the public alone won’t be able to stop the damage.

Q: What kind of impact will our environment suffer if all coral reefs get destroyed?
A: Coral reefs occupy about one percent of earth’s water body, but 25% of marine species inhabit this one percent of coral reefs, so let us say when you loose the coral reefs you will loose this massive biodiversity of marine species, not to mention species with economical value like the Hamour for example, the Hamour lives in these reefs, and the economical loss can be easily calculated. Simply saying, you lose the coral reef you loose the fish and its economical values. Coral reefs have a higher economical value than people think, lets talk about the Red Sea in Egypt, how much money is Egypt making from tourism? Specifically from diving alone?
Recreational diving is pumping so much money into the country’s treasury that I think they have established a governmental authority, they have a very successful underwater monitoring system that they even have underwater police and I have seen how strict they are. Its because they understand the value of what they have, they know how much they can benefit from it. Economical value aside, lost of coral reefs will also lead to the degradation of islands, without coral reefs breaking the strong sea- current, waves will come in and corrode the islands. Coral reefs also have a role in balancing the chemicals in the water, so loosing them will also lead to loss of marine biodiversity because of chemical imbalance.

Q: Is it possible for Kuwait to achieve what Egypt has achieved in coral reef conservation and accessibility to tourists?
A: On the conservation side, yes, it is very possible, but as for tourist attractions, the Red Sea remains more attractive than the Arabian Gulf.   We still have great issues and obstacles to go through before even thinking of doing that.

Q: Do you have any projects planned for the future?
A: We are trying to establish a new kind artificial reef here in Kuwait, it is certainly not new in other countries, but it is new to Kuwait, however the main obstacle we are facing concerning this project, is getting the approval from the government and decision makers, and convince them to why this project is important, we are not even going to request for funds, just the approval.

Q: In your opinion, why is it always difficult to get the approval for new projects?
A: You sometimes meet people in charge and within the first ten to twenty minutes you ask yourself, how is this person in charge? He’s not even capable of being a simple employee, they lack the knowledge and experience, then he acts like he knows everything, even when you face him with common sense and logic, he will refuse, because he doesn’t know what you are talking about. People tend to be afraid from what they don’t understand, so if you put an inexperienced person in a decision making position and who does not know anything about the position, he’s- going to say no to everything, or say “don’t open any doors on us” as they say in Arabic.
I have seen this first hand, I once had a meeting, I was 200% prepared, I knew every question they would ask before they asked it, with scientific proof and evidence. I gave the presentation about the project, and they asked all the predicted questions like “maybe this will effect the environment ....” I then handed them a scientific journal and experiment that have been done in the past, proving them otherwise. “but it might effect the other .....” I then hand them another journal and proof, and so on, so for every question or query they had for me I had the answer and solution with scientific proof and evidence. In the end, they refused.

Q: If you had a message to send to the public, what would that message be?
A: We are all in the same boat, anything we do that negatively effects our environment? We will all suffer its consequence, if it’s not us, then it’s our future generation. We are all responsible, and time is of the essence we have to take action, because certain damages cannot be fixed and is irreversible. We have to do something while we still can.


Mohammed Yacoub Al-Kharafi
Educational back ground:
* Bachelor degree from Kuwait University, Major in Microbiology and Minor in Marine Science. (2003)
* Master in Applied science from James Cook University in Australia majored Aquaculture (2007).
Professional background:
Worked as an Aquatic-Biologist researcher - since 2003 in the Public Authority Of agriculture and Fisheries (PAAF). Delegated to the Central Committee to supervise the implementation of projects related to Environmental Remediation from 3/2010 till 6/2011 where he is returned to back to PAAF.
Promoted to head the Section of Bio-aquatic & research at PAAF ever since
Diving Background:

Diving Certificates:
* First scuba diver license in 1996 (NAUI)(Amateur).
* Started professional diving in 2001 after joining the national diving team and obtained the Advanced NAUI diver.
* Rescue diver certificate (NAUI)(2001).
* Master scuba diver certificate (NAUI) (2001).
* Three star diver (CMAS)(2002).
* Scientific diving certificate from James Cook University.

Diving experiences
* The cleaning of Kubbar island reef (2001).
* The salvage of the Iraqi cannon in Um Al-Marradem island.
* The cleaning of Kubbar island reef (2002).
* Salvage of three sunken boats in the Yacht Club between 2001-2003.
* Joined the Kuwait Diving Team in 2007 as the head of the Scientific Committee
* Salvage of sunken boat in Al-Kout harbor (2008).
* The rescue of trapped turtles at Solabya power plant (2009).
* Rescue trapped Whale shark (2009).
* Release of two captive Turtles (2009).
* Participating in the “Exploration trip of wrecks in the Red Sea”      (2010).
* Clean up of Garouh Island.
* Salvage of a sunken boat in Souk Sharq
* Salvage of a sunken boat in Ouha island
* Participating in Coral conservation workshop in Abu Dhabi by New York University.

By Ahmed Al-Naqeeb
Arab Times Staff


By: Mohammed Al-Kharafi

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