Turning the tide: the 3D technology saving the Gulf’s coral reefs

Marine conservationists are harnessing the power of open-source technology in a quest to save the Gulf's coral reefs

Major Ali Al Suweidi was born on the beach. After his birth, following an ancient Gulf tradition, the umbilical cord was thrown out to sea (according to Emirati lore it is usually either given to the sea or the desert, creating a lifelong attachment between the individual and the habitat chosen for them). That is what he credits for his enduring passion for protecting the sea and its creatures, saying, “I am with the sea always.”

The former naval officer founded Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) in 1996, the first NGO dedicated to research and preservation of marine life, after witnessing the impact of humans on the marine ecosystem during the First Gulf War.

Speaking from Sir Bani Yas Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, where he is working on a project to develop the model for eco-tourism, Al Suweidi sounds concerned about the situation the Arabian Gulf coral reef is facing.

“After the mass coral bleaching effectof 1996 and 1998 [when unusually high temperatures were experienced] most of the corals were killed or damaged. And now, when there is too much development, it causes further damage to the reefs.”

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Al Suweidi at the Ghantoot Reserve, near Jebel Ali, which he helped to found

Among the natural stressors that the marine ecosystem in the Gulf has to cope with are high salinity and extreme and fluctuating temperatures. Salinity levels can reach 70-80 PSU (Practical Salinity Unit), while sea temperatures can reach 36°C during the summer. Organisms living in these waters are already on the borderline of their environmental tolerance.

Biological sources of stress, such as invasive algae species entering the ecosystem through ballast water compound the issue, as do stressors that result from human activity such as industrial effluents, over-fishing, and coastal land reclamation. The unprecedented development in the region in the last decade poses a threat of further degradation to the marine ecosystem, unless it is managed conscientiously.

But the fact that the coral reefs are still around proves their resilience, and makes them of considerable scientific interest, as marine biologists can study their unique ecological setting and learn how reef species will cope with the impact of global warming elsewhere in the world.

According to data presented at the International Workshop on Climate Change and Island Vulnerability in 2010, over 65 per cent of coral reefs in the Arabian Gulf had been lost and up to 30 per cent critically endangered. Of this, only 3 per cent are still in untainted condition. As of February 2015, the number of coral reefs lost stood at 75 per cent, according to statistics released at the Coral Reefs of Arabia Conference held at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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Delicate tentacles of pink and yellow Teddy Bear Coral in the Daymaniyat Nature reserve in Oman

According to John Burt, head of the marine biology lab at New York University Abu Dhabi, and a well-known expert on coral reef conservation in the Gulf, “Fish stocks in this part of the Gulf have dropped by 81 per cent; some of the best coral reefs in the area were destroyed by offshore construction; and reefs in the vicinity that managed to survive development are in serious decline.”

There are few places where preserving the underwater ecosystem is as important as it is here in this region where the low biodiversity of the arid land means most of the biological riches are available underwater.

The coral reef system in the shallow, young (it is only 20,000 years old) Arabian Gulf, spread along the coasts of UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain, plays an important role not only in terms of providing habitat for numerous fish and marine species, including turtles, dugongs (the Arabian Gulf is home to the world’s second largest dugong population after Australia), and dolphins, but also protecting the coast from corrosion, and supporting commercial fishing as well as recreational activities.

Research efforts taking place in these waters, which began on a fairly ad hoc basis and mostly covered near-shore areas, have had to develop. Conservation efforts typically involved individual offshore development projects conducting risk assessments in isolation, which did not build up a picture of the cumulative impact of projects.

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Acropora corals in Oman are a perfect hiding place for this Laced Moray eel

Key to marine conservation is data collection, which Al Suweidi indicates is improving in the region. “In other coastal countries such as Australia, most of the work as a marine biologist is done out in the field. Here, things are changing now to replicate that type of collection, and universities here are starting to invest in data,” he says.

Foremost among them is New York University Abu Dhabi, where the challenges being faced by Burt and his team in the marine biology department led to the genesis of an exciting innovation in underwater mapping.

About a year ago, a bunch of young students, led by Daniel Carelli and Jovan Jovancevic (both engineering majors) developed the reefRover, an autonomous robotic underwater camera that could well revolutionise seabed monitoring on a scientific basis.

The reefRover employs the existing technology of OpenROV, an opensource underwater drone, to perform as  a data-collection platform that can be used by recreational divers to provide high-quality data suitable for use in scientific research – effectively turning divers into citizen scientists.

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iseahorse.org uses citizen scientists to record seahorse sightings

The reefRover scans autonomously within a pre-planned perimeter to obtain high-grade images. Different data sets can then be stitched together to create a map for a larger area.

The goal is for the reefRover to create a comprehensive coral reef database of the Arabian Gulf that can be updated continuously, and to eventually produce 3D models of the seabed based on the captured 2D images.

Its ease of use means the reefRover can help increase the scale of reef surveying exponentially – it can simply be deployed at the start of any outing, will scan automatically, and then can be recalled when it’s time to go home.

Currently, underwater expeditions are intensive in terms of cost, man-hours, and impact on human health – which limits the length of time that can be spent in surveying, as well as its physical scope. “The reefRover can cover thousand times more space than manual surveying would, in the two-hour span its battery life allows for, per session,” explains Jovancevic.

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The reefRover drone can cover 1,400sqm per outing, compared to only 100sqm using manual methods

The reefRover is still a prototype about to go into beta testing, with the marine biology lab at NYU-AD set to be its first users, but it has been very well received at its public showings so far, which include the 2016 Drones for Good Competition in UAE, where it placed second. The team was also invited to participate at the Engineering for Social Good conference at the prestigious Impact2 Forum in Paris, where it received a positive response from industry veterans.

Happily, they are not alone. There is a concerted effort among governmental and non-governmental organisations across the GCC answering the call of crusaders such as Al Suweidi, who believes that education, awareness, and research are the key pillars of marine conservation.

Organisations such as Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD); Dubai Municipality; and Abu Dhabi Marine Conservation Group – a voluntary organisation started by sisters, Maitha and Shamsa Al Hameli (Maitha also works at EAD as a marine habitat specialist), have all made significant strides in the right direction.

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The reefRover was developed by young scientists led by Daniel Carelli and Jovan Jovancevic

For instance, the Al Hameli sisters undertake research of local fish species with a baited remote underwater video system, and have started regular surveys for seahorses through the global iseahorse.org programme.

They are also active in removing ghost nets (nets left behind by fishermen) that can suffocate or even break corals – all of which they fit in between work and studying, and with limited financial resources.

Like Al Suweidi, the sisters grew up by the ocean and like him they cannot stand by and watch this essential life source wither away.

“I definitely think there needs to be more awareness about the marine ecosystem here, and the problems and risks the species that live here are facing,” says Maitha. “Awareness is everyone’s job. It is not any one entity’s mission, it is a combined effort of the whole community.”