By Dalya Dajani
AQABA — This city’s unique marine habitat is beginning to lose its appeal among several tourist diving groups, who cite serious coral reef damage as a result of littering and other issues compromising their safety.
A prime attraction for divers worldwide and a key resource for tourism, Aqaba’s diving sites that contain some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs, are drawing criticism from several groups that expressed shock and dismay at their current condition.
In letters addressed to clubs in the area, several diving groups said the quality of certain dive sites was seriously affected by litter, while others wrote that they were looking to other destinations for future dive holidays. “All of our group had good words to say about you and… the people of Jordan… but are unlikely to come back to Jordan for a diving holiday,” wrote British diver and reef conservationist David Prentice, following a diving expedition in Aqaba.
“Both divers and snorkellers were disappointed in the quality of the dive sites [for coral and fish] and angry about the general condition of the reef and shore as far as litter and pollution are concerned,” he added. With extensive experience in reef conservation work around the world, Prentice acknowledged the challenges facing the Kingdom in this regard, but expressed concern for the future of diving centre businesses in five years time unless conditions were “improved quickly”.
A hotspot for thousands of Jordanians during the weekends, the southern shoreline is a key part of the problem. The beach is often littered with all kinds of rubbish by the end of the day — from cigarette butts, soda cans and plastic bags, to diapers, charcoal and even, on one occasion, the carcass of a goat — which find their way into the sea.
Although the Royal Marine Conservation Society (JREDS) and other community-based organisations conduct periodic clean-up campaigns to prevent additional damage to the marine habitat, the problem prevails due to the lack of public awareness and weak enforcement of regulations.
JREDS Executive Director Fadi Sharaiha, who has led several awareness and clean-up drives in the area over recent years, said attempts to change public behaviour and understanding of the environment has been a challenge.
He acknowledged that the majority of the public have no regard for the conservation of the coral reef or the state of the public beach.
“We have done a lot over the past few years to step up awareness about the environment and the importance of the coral reef, but this has been difficult,” said Sharaiha.
“Trying to change the mindsets of some of the older generation is as good as hopeless, that is why we are focusing our education programmes on young people,” he added.
An authority in marine environment, JREDS has been working with kindergarten students as well as police and environmental rangers operating under the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) and the Aqaba Marine Park.
Even these efforts, he said, are a drop in the ocean for the change needed to produce results.
“As a nation, we have a problem when it comes to maintaining public places,” Sharaiha said.
“We need to educate people on the importance of the environment and its impact on tourism life and future. We’re working with youth clubs as well as rangers and advocating for changing laws,” he added.
Sharaiha said the problems exists at various levels, starting from the regular citizen all the way to those responsible for enforcement.
Currently, ASEZA and environmental rangers are responsible for monitoring violations and are authorised to issue fines.
Those littering can be fined between JD20-JD25, while Article 25 of the Environmental Protection Law stipulates a minimum penalty of JD10,000 for damaging coral, but it is usually never enforced, according to observers.
There have been some positive steps, however, with ASEZA undertaking awareness efforts and preventive measures to protect the marine habitat.
For example, fishing within the marine park area has been banned and ASEZA is raising awareness on the importance of marine life in schools and with the concerned authorities. A coral replantation programme is also under way in the northern coast of the port city.
Sarah Lyle, a diver and underwater photographer from Ireland who has been travelling to Aqaba since 1998, commended these efforts.
But she expressed concern about the inadequate efforts to solve the problem of littering.
“The coral reefs in Aqaba are almost unique in the Red Sea in that they have not been devastated by over-diving, but from the level of rubbish that is being left on the beaches,” Lyle told The Jordan Times.
“Without the pristine reefs, diving tourists will stop coming to Aqaba and probably opt for the cheaper, more accessible Egyptian Red Sea resorts,” she added.
Lyle said ASEZA should be praised for the trash bins placed on the beaches, but added that “their efforts would be better spent educating people not to litter in the first place”.
Divers also raised concerns regarding their safety, citing the dangers posed by fishing and glass-bottom boats in the area.
In a petition to one of Aqaba’s diving clubs, a group of Italian and British divers said the small fishing boats that come too close to shore could “injure or even kill people and scare tourists who are here to enjoy the beauty of the reef and are obliged to risk their safety to do so”.
Lyle said glass-bottom boats had sailed over her on two occasions at the entry/exit point of her dive without any regard for her or others in the water.
She noted similar threats from waves caused by the ferry to Nweibeh, suggesting that a regulation be enforced to oblige these ferries to reduce their speed and alter course to minimise the effects, as well as carry warning signs alerting water users about strong swells when they pass.
A British tourist who took a trip on a glass-bottom boat last month, noted that he saw “more discarded cans on the seabed than fish and healthy coral”.
But the tourist was even more shocked when the boat struck a reef and broke off bits of coral a number of times during the trip.
JREDS worked with owners of 70 glass bottom-boats on safety regulations and awareness against littering last year.
But for now divers and observers are wondering when there will be serious efforts to address these issues, with one remarking that it would probably take a fatal accident to prompt the required action.
Monday, June 4, 2007