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Saudi Arabia is becoming a global leader in marine conservation

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17 Feb 2024 03:02:57 GMT9
17 Feb 2024 03:02:57 GMT9

The release on Netflix of the documentary “Horizon” showcasing the Kingdom’s wildlife is a landmark event in raising awareness about the country’s unique biodiversity.

While terrestrial wildlife has been the focus of conservation efforts in Saudi Arabia for decades, there has been less attention paid to marine wildlife. However, under Vision 2030, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rapidly becoming a global leader in marine conservation.

These efforts are now guided by the many discoveries made by the Red Sea Decade Expedition — a collaborative involving the National Center for Wildlife, King Abdulaziz University, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, NEOM, Red Sea Global and OceanX.

On Feb. 10 and 11, the NCW hosted the Red Sea Decade Expedition Symposium in Riyadh, marking a milestone in marine conservation. Led by the NCW, the Red Sea Decade Expedition surveyed Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea waters, from the shoreline to the greatest depths, and from south to north.

This was done with two research vessels, OceanXplorer and KAU’s Al-Azzizi, equipped with submersibles, deep-sea robots, a helicopter and advanced technologies and laboratories.

The Red Sea Decade Expedition used advanced DNA sequencing technologies to establish an end-to-end catalog of the Red Sea’s biodiversity, from bacteria to whales, to inform the Kingdom’s commitment to conserve 30 percent of the Red Sea.  

The expedition discovered many new species and even new families of corals and other marine species of interest never reported before.

It gathered the first images of living lantern fish, the most abundant fish on the planet, which, hidden in the depths of the ocean, had never been filmed alive before. It also retrieved the first footage of living specimens of delicate gelatinous animals that are extremely rare in the ocean.  

We are building a bright future for our natural heritage, which the Kingdom is committed to conserve for generations to come.

Carlos Duarte

We assessed the abundance of sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other marine wildlife of conservation interest, and discovered a range of amazing ecosystems, particularly the blue holes and sunken lagoons north of Jazan.

These remarkable ecosystems, not even known to local fishermen, who do not venture into these shallow reefs and deep holes, are major targets for conservation and ecotourism and are of global significance.

We unveiled how the efficient operation of the microbial food web in the Red Sea sustains one of the largest stocks of deep-water fish in the world, despite its low nutrient input.

Our teams assessed the levels of litter and plastic across the Red Sea, which identified shipping as a major source of the waste found on the seafloor, demonstrating the need for operators to improve their compliance with existing policies to avoid marine pollution.

Furthermore, we assessed coral health and identified the best-preserved coral reefs as well as those that should be the focus of restoration efforts, and identified the most important habitats for juvenile sea turtles and discovered for the first time that great whales reproduce in the Red Sea.

We also retrieved samples off the seafloor using technology deployed for the first time anywhere in the ocean.

This was unique because it used advanced chemical and DNA sequencing technologies to determine changes in the Red Sea and its biodiversity since 1800, thereby providing targets to regenerate wildlife to its former abundance.

I had the honor of serving as scientific coordinator for the expedition. Among the many discoveries we brought to land, I discovered the power of collaboration in expanding the horizon of our knowledge of the Red Sea, as well as the power of leadership, exerted by the CEO of the NWC, Dr. Mohammad Qurban, a renowned marine scientist, to forge such a collaborative environment.

Together, as brothers and sisters, we are building a bright future for our natural heritage, which the Kingdom is committed to conserve for generations to come.

• Carlos Duarte is a Ibn Sina distinguished professor of marine science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Tarek Ahmed Juffali research chair in Red Sea ecology, and executive director of the Global Coral research and development accelerator platform. He has spent 40 years researching ocean ecosystems.

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