BY SEMIR DEID | SHABAIT
The Eritrean marine resources are vastly distributed within the long coast and below the beautifully and carefully preserved sea. As a continuation to the first part of Eritrea’s marine resources, this section gives details about the coral reefs, bird life, sea turtles, vegetation, tourism prospects and more.
Marine experts say that coral reefs are shallow tropical water ecosystems largely restricted to areas between 30°N and 30°S latitudes. Coral reefs rank among the most biologically productive and diverse of all natural ecosystems. Living coral reefs support thousands of species including crustaceans, fishes, sponges, algae and molluscs. For centuries coral reefs have formed a vital component of coastal economies in many tropical countries.
In 1980, the World Conservation Strategy identified coral reefs as one of the “essential life support systems” necessary for food production, health and other aspects of human survival and sustainable development. At the ecosystem level, coral reefs play significant ecological and economic roles by serving as sheltering, feeding and breeding grounds for numerous marine species and fishing grounds for coastal communities by fostering the tourism industry, providing protection of coastline against wave and storm surge, preventing erosion and contributing to the formation of sandy beaches and sheltering harbors.
There is high diversity of coral and fish in many parts of the coasts and Eritrean islands. At least 38 coral genera and 220 species have been identified and recorded.
According to some surveys there are 78 species of seabirds and shorebirds, of which 22 are known to breed on the islands, mainly in the summer. While 25 species are true seabirds that belong to families such as tropic bird, booby, gull, tern and cormorant, the remaining utilize the marine environment partly, including families such as pelican, spoonbill, heron, flamingo, duck, plover and sandpiper.
In addition, more than 50 species of land birds were identified on the Eritrean islands. These diverse bird species are found in 181 islands. The two groups of sea birds and shore birds are basically distinguished by their relative spatial location. Seabirds spend the greater part of their lives at sea, diving to hunt and sometimes going to the shores to lay eggs, whereas shorebirds spend most of their time in the intertidal zone mainly feeding by scavenging fishes or invertebrates that are washed out to the shore.
Many species of seabirds and shorebirds exhibit migratory life styles. Most of them migrate from the temperate or arctic northern hemisphere, before winter, in search of warmer breeding places in the tropics and southern hemisphere.
As a country in the subtropical region, Eritrea is the station for these migratory and resident bird populations for most times of the year. The areas include the coasts from Massawa to Assab, from Massawa to Sudan, the islands of Dahlak Archipelago, Hawakil, Anfile and Assab Bays. These islands and coastlines vary from sand bars to complex ecosystems: salt diaper, which consists of salt deposit and dead coral, bare sands, exposed uplifted coral, spare shrub and grassland vegetation (e.g. Acacia, Panicum, Salicornia spp, Euphorbia spp, Atriplex) and mangrove vegetation, a comfort zone for a large number of seabirds’ breeding.
Other marine lives found in the Eritrean Sea are the Sea turtles, Dolphins and Whales. The world oceans and seas host seven species of marine turtles of two families, Cheloniidea and Dermochelyidea. Five of them are known to exist in the Eritrean waters.
These are the Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Green (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and Leatherback (Dermochelys coricea).
Dolphins of different species also exist, and they are the most common marine mammals in the Eritrean waters. Whales are also seen in offshore waters of Saroyta and are locally called ‘Amber Bahr’ or ‘Bitan’ in the Dahlak islands. The Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) the Spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris), the Bottlenosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and the Indo-Pacific Hump-backed dolphin (Sousa plumbea) have been seen in Eritrean waters or skeletons found on the shores. Whales are not seen very frequently as the depth of the water is shallow near the shore. The Tropical whale or Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni) and the False Killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) have been spotted.
Mangrove forests in Eritrea are found along about 380 km of coastline and cover an area of about 70 km². Most of the mangrove forests are found in areas where some seasonal freshwater runoff occurs and in low lying, poorly draining areas behind dune ridges which are flooded infrequently (e.g. Lake Mandalum, near Mersa Deresa and Mersa Mubarek in the north). Towards the south, dense mangrove forests are found near Assab Bay and in patches around Tio. Some offshore islands such Museri, Norah, Harena, and Dergamman Kebir also have dense mangroves.
Although mangroves of the Red Sea are not as abundant as those on other tropical coasts, they play similarly important ecological roles. They are nurseries for several commercial fish species, protect coral reefs by trapping sediment loads from the seasonal rainwater influx and also act as an important breeding, nesting and wintering sites for migratory birds, both shorebirds and seabirds.
In addition, the presence of mangroves in numerous places stabilizes the coastline by protecting it against the effects of storms and wave actions. Mangroves also play an important role in the maintenance of other ecosystems, including wetlands, salt marshes, sea grass beds and coral reefs. About 380 km of the Eritrean mainland and island coastlines are covered by mangrove forests. Of the seven mangrove species in the Red Sea area, three are found on the mainland and numerous islands. They are Avicennia marina, Rhizophora mucronata and Ceriops tagal.
To the east of the Buri Peninsula, the Hawakil Bay encompasses the rugged islands of the Hawakil archipelago, and a rich marine habitat of mangroves, corals and sea-grass beds. Along with the coral and mangrove ecosystems, sea grasses also form an integral part of the coastal biodiversity. More than 12 species have been identified so far. In addition to fishes and invertebrates, sea grass communities also support sea turtles and the globally endangered dugongs.
A Significant amount of sea grass beds are found around Barasole, the western side of Mantola island in the south, Hawakil, Debel Ali, Dergamman Kebir, Baka, Delesen, north side of Harena, west of Adjuz, Norah, Baradu and Dehil islands. Out of the common sea weed species identified, nine species are green algae (Chlorophyta), nine brown algae (Phaeophyta) and four red algae (Rhodophyta). Spatially, the distribution of sea weeds along the Eritrean coastline and islands is not uniform.
All of these facts will have an immense contribution to the tourism industry. The beauty and diversity of the Eritrean coast and marine life attract visitors. Tourism is highly encouraged in this region, considering the long coast line Eritrea has. Unpolluted sea, islands with a lot of resources, captivating topography and vegetation as well as the healthy coastal marine habitats with a variety of species, safe, secure and enjoyable environment blended with the hospitable population can be taken as the distinct features of the coastal area and a strong basis for developing sustainable tourism industry. Although in its emerging stage of development, Eritrea’s coastal area has the potential for a range of tourism activities.
Current tourism activities include excursions, cruising, swimming, snorkeling, diving and recreational fishing. Likewise the terrestrial biodiversity, historical sites such as Adulis-Zula, the Bada-Crater- Lake, volcanoes, thermal vents and coastal villages are among the main coastal inland spots of tourism. The presence of historical and archaeological sites, such as Adulis or the necropolis on Dahlak El Kebir Island, the prevalence of unique climatic features and the existence of the awesome wildlife can boost related recreational and tourism activities.
Future tourism in Eritrea is likely to rely heavily on the coastal environment. The establishment of different hotels, resorts, diving centers, marinas and recreation centers attracts tourists towards the coastal areas.
In order to conserve the nations’ major biodiversity elements and to rehabilitate some of its ecosystems, Eritrea has taken concrete actions in establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Taking their ecological and economic significance into account four sites-Dissei-Madote, Museri, Ras Fatuma and Sheik Seid (Green) islands-have been selected as MPAs.
The Buri Peninsula is one of the areas where Dorcas and Soemmerring’s gazelle are found abundantly. More importantly, it is also home for the African wild ass (one of the last groups of this endangered species in the world). Ostriches (Struthio camelus) still roam in the Buri Peninsula and are often found close to settlements. For such a combined importance, the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) has proposed Buri peninsula as one of the country’s protected areas.
Despite the harsh environmental conditions, Soemmerring’s gazelle is widely distributed in the coastal plains including Dahlak Kebir Island. The Danakil Depression is also proposed as a Protected Area. It extends over the northern and southern Red Sea regions and includes volcanic lakes.
Eritrea has been practising and enforcing regulatory actions to preserve its corals and other marine ecosystems. Similarly, in a sense of minimizing stresses from tourism, the number of islands accessible to tourists have been determined to be few. Considering Eritrea’s national endowment in marine resources, investing in this sector is a sure recipe for the nation’s development.