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" Mermaids": Urgent Action Needed to Save them from Habitat Destruction, Pollution and Entanglement in Fishing Nets

Strictly embargoed for one minute to midnight GMT 12 February 2002 (A Tuesday for Wednesday story)

Cartagena/Nairobi, 12 February 2002 - The mysterious and rare marine-living dugong, considered the inspiration for fishy tales of mermaids made up by old seafarers, is under serious and increasing threat in most parts of the world where it is still found.

Findings from the first ever, global, study of the enigmatic "sea cow or elephant of the sea", indicates that rising pollution from the land, coastal developments, boat traffic and fishermens' nets are among the list of increasing threats which are contributing to a decline in the dugong's fortunes.

The threats to the animal should be of critical concern to the billions of people who rely on the oceans for their livelihoods. If the dugong, a key indicator species, is declining then the coastal environment which provides protein in the form of fish and incomes in terms of tourism is also being degraded.

Hunting for meat, amulets and trophies may be adding to these pressures, says the report released today at the seventh special session of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in the northern, seaside, city of Cartagena, Colombia.

Helene Marsh, Professor of Environmental Science at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, and the lead author of the report, said: "Dugongs appear to have disappeared or already become extinct in some places such as the waters off Mauritius, the Seychelles, western Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Japan's Sakishima Shoto Islands, Hong Kong's Pearl River estuary, several islands in the Philippines including Zambales and Cebu, and parts of Cambodia and Vietnam".

"Elsewhere populations appear to be declining with the possible exception of northern Australian waters and those of the Red Sea area and Arabian Gulf. The situation in East Africa is particularly alarming and it is possible that this will be the next place where the dugong becomes extinct unless urgent action is taken," said the scientist, whose report has been funded by organizations including UNEP, the World Conservation Union, UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the CRC Reef Research Centre

Even where populations appear stable or buoyant, there can be no room for complacency argues the report, The Dugong (Dugong dugon): Status Report and Action Plans for Countries and Territories in its Range.

Human populations are growing across much of the dugongs range, putting pressure on the coastal habitats where dugongs are restricted as a result of their dependence on seagrasses for food.

Meanwhile dugongs reproduce at a very low rate with females rarely producing more than one calf, sometime between the age of six and 17 years old, and failing to reproduce at all during times of food shortages.

"So even under a perfect, pressure-free and pollution-free environment, a dugong population is unlikely to grow at much more than five per cent a year. Even a slight reduction in the survival of the adults, as a result of habitat loss, disease, hunting or incidental drowning in nets, can cause a chronic decline," said Tim Foresman, Director of UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment.

The report has gathered information on the state of the dugong from researchers, local people, fishermen and government officials in the 37 countries and territories where the animal has historically been recorded.


The report makes urgent conservation recommendations aimed at stemming the decline and boosting dugong numbers. These centre around the protection of seagrass beds upon which these herbivorous animals' are almost totally dependent for food.

Seagrasses require sunlight to thrive. In many areas of the world, seagrass beds are being cleared for development or smothered by silt and mud as a result of run off due to overgrazing, intensive agriculture and deforestation.

Port developments and dredging are causing similar impacts. The use of herbicides, which swill off the land into the sea, on sugar cane plantations may also be damaging seagrass beds.

Climate change, with its anticipated rise in more violent, damaging storms and flash floods, poses a new threat. The report notes that such events have, in places like South East Asia and Australia, devastated hundreds of square kilometres of seagrass beds in recent years.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said: "There are many reasons for fighting climate change. Securing the future of the oceans is a crucial one. More violent weather events and rising sea temperatures threaten precious ecosystems and habitats such as coral reefs, fish stocks and creatures like the dugong. The report also shows that we must strengthen our efforts to reduce marine pollution. Late last year in Montreal, nations met and agreed to re-vitalize the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities. The health of dugong populations could become a key indicator in many parts of the globe as to whether this renewed initiative is succeeding".

The report also highlights the need for countries with dugong populations to strengthen conservation initiatives with neighboring countries, including signing and ratifying the Convention on Migratory Species, a UNEP-linked convention. Dugongs, which were once thought to be relatively sedentary, have been found to travel up to 600km in a few days, the report says.

Robert Hepworth, Deputy Director of UNEP's Division of Environmental Conventions said "It is also important that all countries co-operate to prevent international commercial exploitation of this species. Dugongs deserve the same attention already devoted to other marine mammals such as dolphins and small whales, where joint management plans could be implemented at national and regional level. The dugong's main diet of sea grass also occurs frequently alongside coral and mangrove ecosystems. Conservation programmes already in place, such as the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN), can be part of the effort to save dugongs"

Notes to Editors

East Africa. "The future for dugongs in East Africa is uncertain but appears bleak. Populations appear extremely small and fragmented….the latest reports suggest that they are likely to become extinct in this region," says the report.

It points to gill net fisheries, in which dugongs can become entangled, as a key concern. This is alongside destruction of seagrass beds as a result of poor farming practices, including grazing livestock on coastal dunes, and the clearing of coastal and inland forests and wetlands for salt panning and shrimp farms. Removal of mangrove swamps for firewood and building materials and sand mining, are other key concerns.

Few if any individuals now remain off the coasts of Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, the Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius despite many of these countries once holding significant populations with herds in the hundreds.

In Kenya, surveys carried out between 1973 and the 1990s, indicate a rapid decline in the dugong population. There are considered to be no more than 50 left. Similar stories emerge in other countries in the region.

The Red Sea region

The report is more optimistic about the dugong here. The animals are subject to few, man-made, pressures in the Red Sea region.

"It is likely that the area supports significant numbers of dugongs. Saudi Arabia could play a vital role in the preservation of dugong habitats and dugong conservation in the Red Sea as human density along the Saudi coast is low," it says.

Arabian Gulf

The dugong population in the Arabian Gulf is believed to be the second largest in the world after Australia. Akab Island in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is, at 6,000 years old, the oldest site where remains of the animals have been discovered.

Populations are concentrated along the coast of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE.

India and Sri Lanka

Herds of many hundreds once occurred in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka but the most recent surveys have failed to find any. Populations are thought to be completely depleted in the Gulf of Mannar.

Dugong populations around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have declined drastically in recent decades. The damage has been caused by increasingly heavy boat traffic, conversion of coastal forests to banana, areca nut and coconut plantations leading to toxic run off, pollution from urban centres, oil spills, bottom trawling by fishermen and the commercial harvesting of seagrasses

In Sri Lanka, dugongs were common up to the early part of the 20th century in north west coastal waters. But they are now rarely sighted as a result of over harvesting for meat, oil and hide.

East and Southeast Asia

The waters off Okinawa Island are now thought to be the only place in Japan where dugongs are left. The seagrass meadows which support them are under threat from coastal construction, run off from the land, land reclamation and the expansion of seaweed aqua culture operations. Nets for seaweed aqua culture are often set over seagrass beds.

Dugongs are now thought to occur only in and around Hainan Island in China and those populations are at risk from seagrass habitat destruction as a result of factors including construction of fish and shrimp ponds, aqua culture industries, rising sea levels causing increased erosion and siltation from the land.

Hainan is a popular tourist destination and dugongs may also be being disturbed and displaced by boats and Scuba divers.

"Dugongs were believed to be fairly common throughout the Philippines until the 1970s. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most populations in Philippine waters are declining," says the report.

Seventy three per cent of those surveyed in Thailand say the dugong population is declining which is line with the opinion of government officials, scientists and non-governmental organizations.

Records of dugongs in Singapore waters date back to 1821, but they were considered largely extinct by the 1970s.

The report says there have been sightings of small number of dugongs in Malaysian and Brunei waters.

The animals are considered to be scattered in small numbers throughout Indonesian waters. In the 1970s there were an estimated 10,000 dugongs. The latest estimate is 1,000.

Pacific Islands

A small, isolated, population is found around Palau. Surveys indicate that there were 38 dugongs in 1983 but only 26 were sighted in 1991.

The animals are poached for food for special occasions. "Unless poaching is stopped as a matter or urgency, it is likely dugongs will become extinct in Palau," says the report.

It is likely that dugongs are distributed in small, scattered numbers, in the waters off Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and Vanuatu.


The waters of Western Australia support many thousands of dugong which currently appear to be free from damaging levels of human activity in key areas like Shark Bay.

Australia's Northern Territory and Queensland coasts, and the Gulf of Carpentaria, also support thousands of dugongs. There is some hunting by indigenous peoples and there is a risk of heavy metal pollution from port facilities, but generally the animals do not appear under too much threat except along the urban east coast of Queensland.

Mermaids: The popular stories of this fabulous marine creature, half-woman and half-fish, allied to the siren of classic mythology, probably arose from sailors' accounts of the dugong, a cetacean whose head has a rough resemblance to the human outline. The mother while suckling her young holds it to her breast with one flipper, as a woman holds her baby in her arm. If disturbed, she suddenly dives under the water, and tosses up her fishlike tail - Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable: Millennium Edition.

UNEP has coordinated the Global Marine Mammal Action Plan since 1984 with partners such as the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization in an effort to address marine mammal issues including their decline due to pollution and exploitation. At the regional level UNEP has also fostered the development of regional management plans such as those for the West Indian manatee, which is the sea cow species found in the Caribbean, in the Wider Caribbean and for marine mammals in the South East Pacific under the framework of the regional Cartagena and Lima Conventions respectively.

For more information please contact: Tore J Brevik, UNEP Spokesman/Director of the Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 623292, e-mail: tore.brevik@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 2 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, in Cartagena the press room is 575-6544350 or Hotel Almirante Estelar 575-6668261, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org or Helene Marsh on Tel: 617 747277502, e-mail: helene.marsh@jcu.edu.au or Timothy Foresman, Director of the UNEP Division of Early Warning and Assessment, on Tel: 254 2 623231, e-mail: tim.foresman@unep.org

Journalists can download a copy of the full report under embargo at http://www.unep.org/dewa/water/

UNEP News Release 2002/07