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How Citizen Science Can Help Save the Red Sea

Promoting eco-activism with real results, one group of proactive Egyptians are combating the threats faced by the beautiful Red Sea corals, one trip at a time. Valentina Primo dives in with the founders of B-Aware...

Statistics are gloomy: according to a 2011 study by World Resources Institute (WRI), 35% of the coral reefs in the Middle East have been destroyed, while over 60% of those in the Red Sea are currently threatened by pollution, coastal development, and overfishing. The report, entitled Reefs at Risk Revisited, states that a meagre 11% of these reefs are effectively or partially protected in a region which houses 6% of the world’s coral reefs.

Facing the deteriorating conditions the marine corals suffer in the Red Sea, three young Egyptians have joined forces to create B-aware, an initiative that aims to establish a baseline of awareness about marine life among Egyptian civil society. Led by Fady Nagy, Mahmoud El Sharkawy, and Nada El Shanawny, the initiative has partnered with the bdiver community and is now working on the first stage of their project, introducing an innovative concept: citizen science.

“The key solution to tackle any alarming threat is communicating it to the people who are prone to suffer the impact. Working together as one community to tackle it would be more effective having established a baseline of awareness that everyone can relate to,” says El Shanawany.

The team prepares the slates to take underwater for reef monitoring in Nuweiba. 

Last May, the team organised two events to introduce citizen science in Nuweiba, where participants were trained on the nature of coral reef ecosystems, the current threats, and the possible solutions, as they carried out a series of underwater dives, as well as beach plastic surveys.

“Our aim is to bring people closer to the problems at hand: following a talk about the nature, threats and solutions for the coral reef ecosystems, the divers participated in a series of guided dives, which included reef monitoring and cleaning up,” El Shanawany explains.

Throughout the journey, divers and non-diver participants not only get involved in beach plastic surveys but also help build recycling bins from recycled material. “Being introduced to the current threats in the field is an eye opener for the participants who then propagate their experience to their circle,” El Sharkawy adds.

 B-aware's field trips included beach plastic surveys and the creating of recycling bins made of recycled material.  

According to the B-aware team, the panorama of nature conservation in Egypt's Red Sea is not an optimistic one. “No doubt there are keen individuals and entities working hard on nature conservation, and that is a speck of hope. But if the public continues to be alienated from the current threats, good efforts will remain in a vicious circle and what we crucially need is to reduce the anthropogenic impact before we talk conservation,” El Shanawany points out.

According to the 5 Gyres institute, there are some 269,000 tons of plastic in our oceans nowadays, turning them into a big “plastic soup.” An interesting infographic quantifies this amount using the size of a whale as reference: considering that the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the oceans could fit into a whale, those tons of plastic would equal the weight of 2,150 whales, which looks like this.

“Sources of plastic litter are plentiful, and we have established a plastic index where we record the type, source, and total weight of plastic matter collected from both the sea and the coast at a given location. This is to help us identify the source and magnitude at each location to be able to take the relevant action,” she adds.

"Being introduced to the current threats in the field is an eye opener for participants," El Shanawany says.  

According to estimates by the MVE unit of the Egyptian Environmental Policy Program in 2003, scuba diving and snorkeling represent 44% of international tourists’ reasons to visit Egypt. “Diving pressure on coral reefs is a threat that shouldn’t be taken lightly, since it causes fin damage and boat anchoring damage,” El Shanawany says. Although such threat may seem short-termed, it has a significant immediate impact given the magnitude of costal tourism, she adds.

“No doubt tourism is the largest foreign exchange earning sector in Egypt and the coral reefs are of great economic value to the country, but guidance and awareness about sustainable tourism is deficient and having this persistent threat on coral reefs will certainly influence their economic value.”

Although the tourism industry is one of threats to the Egyptian Red Sea, the team admits there is much to be done to tackle other dimensions, such as litter discarded by shipment boats, introduction of nutrients by sewage dumping, and sedimentation by coastal development. “It’s sad to see all the traces of such threats upon diving in the Red Sea now and this is why we try to reflect to the public what is happening to the treasures of the sea in hope that we can minimise the sources of pollution together,” El Shanawany affirms.

Divers get ready for a clean-up dive in Nuweiba, South Sinai.  

Looking ahead, the team is developing a scheme to integrate the local community of Nuweiba to help track the source of plastic litter, introducing Bedouin youth to a marine resources workshop, as well as approaching local fishermen to “get an essence of the fishing techniques they use and guide them through sustainable fishing.”

“The participants’ uplifting spirits and their determination during our events have also opened our eyes to ameliorate B-aware’s initiative and we will soon announce programs for volunteering to further expand the community and its effectiveness,” says Fady Nagy. “But we are very careful to be adaptive when it comes to future plans,” he points out.