Tourism threatens to overwhelm mantas and whale sharks of Hanifaru Bay

In most places a 260 percent increase in tourist arrivals would be a cause for celebration. Not so for Hanifaru Bay.

Located off the uninhabited island of Hanifaru in Baa Atoll, the bay is a small enclosed reef the size of a football field. But what makes Hanifaru Bay unique and attracts tourists is the phenomena that occurs during the south west monsoon from May to November.

Interplay between the lunar tide and the south west monsoon enables build up of a massive concentration of plankton, which in turn attracts hundreds of huge manta rays and gigantic whale sharks. It’s usual to see up to 200 manta rays in a feeding frenzy, accompanied by whale sharks. The bay is one of the two sites in Maldives which acts as a cleaning station as well as feeding site for whale sharks.

Hanifaru Bay was declared a Marine Protected site last year by the government, in recognition of its importance in the ecosystem. When the bay was featured in National Geographic magazine last year, and a BBC Natural World documentary this year, the site’s fame spread all over the world.

Price of fame

“Sometimes we see up to 14 boats crammed into that little space,” says Mohamed Fathuhy, island chief of nearby Dharavandhoo.

He rues the fact that sometimes snorkelers and divers in the bay outnumber the animals.

Regulations announced by the Ministry of Environment on making the bay an MPA say that only five boats can engage in the area at any given time. It also limits the number of swimmers or divers to 80 at any one time.

However Fathuhy says  some visitors to try and touch the animals. Safari boats sometimes take money from tourists saying there is a charge for snorkeling in the area. And overcrowding is so bad that crews of visiting safari boats and others had almost come to blows over access.

Ahmed Sameer, general secretary of Youth Association of Kamadhoo, another island nearby, says his co-islanders share the concern: “We are worried that if this goes on, the animals might stop coming and the place might be destroyed.”

Asked why the interest in Hanifaru Bay, Sameer says that Kamadhoo islanders have always been a very eco-conscious people.

“Every household in the island recently signed a pact to not harvest turtle eggs or take turtles, and participate in the turtle conservation project by Four Seasons,” he explains.

Concerned and galvanised into action by the efforts of Seamarc, an environmental consultancy firm, and Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Fathuhy and Sameer is a part of a delegation that visited the Environment Ministry yesterday to share their concern and to suggest co-management of the site.

Cries of a community

The delegation consisted of representatives from the islands of Dhonfanu,Dharavandhoo,Thulhadhoo and Kamadhoo. Province minister Ali Niyaz, Dhonfanu Councillor, Director General of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Mohamed Zuhair, Mari Saleem of SEAMARC, Guy Stevens of Maldives Manta Ray Project and Executive members of Liveaboard Association Shaheena Ali and Fayaz Ismail attended the meeting alongside Minister of Environment Mohamed Aslam and Deputy Minister Mohamed Shareef.

Marie a passionate advocate of co management said “Baa atoll community would like to work with the government to help implement the regulations in place.”

“A cross section of the people in the atoll as well as stakeholders in the tourism industry, support the initiative to develop and manage Hanifaru Bay sustainable.”

The figures in Fathuhy’s presentation was impressive.

“Manta ray tourism generates an estimated US$8.1 million annually,” Fathuhy explained. Hanifaru Bay alone is estimated to generate US$ 500,000 in direct revenue for Maldivian economy this year.

A discussion ensued over wheather Baa Atoll could retain the revenues and the danger of the animals deserting the area if things continued as they were.

Some alterations to the existing regulations were proposed such as penalties for those who don’t adhere to regulations: having a fine for those coming into contact with the animals, and banning speedboats and boats with un-protected outboard engines, as well as implementing a compulsory certification system for guides and boat captains working there, and banning scuba diving in the vicinity.

Way forward

With Minister Aslam admitting that central government had difficulties in managing the MPA as well as other protected dive sites, the question arose over how best to go about it.

The lack of  wardens or an effective system of policing the area is an acute problem in Maldives concerning MPA’s.

Hence the  group discussed ways of managing the site, government or EPA managing it, going for a business model or a community based one.

The idea of forming a corporative found the most supporters with Aslam saying that “it’s a structured way of doing it as the laws are also already in place.”

Ismail and Shaheena from Liveaboard association were adamant that government had to play a major role in managing the site.

Shaheena pointed out that it would be unfair if any group got ownership of the place. “The process can’t be too democratic.”

“Tourists that hire speedboats from Male and go to that area will be disappointed if they can’t have access to the area.”

The delegation from Baa Atoll went back to their respective communities at the behest of Aslam to draw and propose a practical plan to manage the area.

While Baa Atoll community and the government try and figure out the best way to manage the area, the future of Hanifaru Bay hangs in balance along with its seasonal inhabitants.


Child’s body found in Baa Atoll

The body of a child was discovered in Kamadhoo of Baa Atoll, report the Maldives Police Service.

Police reported that the body was discovered in the sea by islanders and that the boy was dead when he was carried to hospital.

Police are now investigating the case.

Daily newspaper Haveeru reported that the boy was one year and six months old. The newspaper reported that the boy fell into the sea while he was playing near the island’s jetty.


Dhigufarufinolhu “destroyed” to construct harbor, claims government

Dhigufarufinolhu, a sandbank in Baa Atoll, has been “destroyed” to construct a harbour for the Royal Island Resort,  claims Mohamed Zuhair, Press Secretary of the President’s Office.

The resort is owned by Republican Party Leader and Maamigili MP Gasim Ibrahim.

While the harbour was being constructed for docking speedboats, Zuhair said the sandbank and the resort were not in the same landmass.

“The sandbank has a massive lagoon. In between the resort and sandbank there is deep blue sea,” he said.

Zuhair said that the destruction of the sandbank would have dire consequences for the ecosystem as its lagoon was home to a plethora of marine life.

“All the plankton, fish, bait, sea turtles who come ashore to lay eggs, corals in the area and many seabirds fled after the sandbank was destroyed,” he explained.

Zuhair added that the government has received a numerous complaints about the environmental impact of the construction.

“All the bait the [fishermen] caught there is gone, all the seabirds, which they used to locate fish, are gone after the harbor was constructed,” Zuhair said.

He further claimed that all living coral in the areas was now dying because of the spread of silt produced during the construction.

However, he added, the government could only take any action when the case was reported officially.

”The former government awarded that sandbank in the 1970s,” he said.

Environmental impact

According to Google Earth, the distance between the sandbank and the resort is approximately 1,065 feet.

The lagoon of the sandbank was approximately 2.9 kilometers in length and 1.3 kilometers in width.

Ibrahim Naeem, director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said sandbanks were an essential part of the ecosystem.

”Birds and turtles go there, fish in the area die if there are no rocks,” Naeem said. “The plankton and corals in the area will also die if a sandbank is destroyed.”

Naeem stressed that silt was a very dangerous substance.

”If it gets inside the respiratory system of a fish, they will have difficulty breathing,” he said. ”If it reaches the eye they will suffer from poor eyesight.”

He added that “whether Gasim or Hassan” was responsible was immaterial as the environmental impact would be the same.

Moreover, he said, construction of harbours was generally very harmful to the environment.

Gasim said he was out of the country and could not comment on the matter.


Hithaadhoo now out of water

Hithaadhoo in Baa Atoll has completely run out of water, claims Island councilor Amir Abdul Latheef.

He said he has been getting complaints since yesterday morning that all houses on the island had no water.

”We informed the utilities company that we have no water on the island,” Amir said, ”they told us that they would send water as soon as possible.”

Amir said the islanders were using ground water from the island, a practice banned by the Health Ministry twelve years ago because of the toxicity.

”Only a few wealthy men use mineral water but the majority of people cannot afford to buy water everyday,” he said. ”There are 1227 people on the island,” Amir noted.

He said he had never witnessed a situation similar to this in his whole life. ”[The last time] it rained was eight months ago,” he said,”the situation on the island is now much worse.”

He said the island office was trying to prevent infants from having to use the impure ground water.

”It rains occasionally but that much is not usable as the roofs are dusty and such small amount of rain does not even clean the roofs,” he said.

Amir said people of the island were now in danger of becoming sick with fevers and diseases due to drinking impure water.

State Minister for Health Abdul Baary Abdulla said there were many diseases that could potentially result from the use of contaminated water, including diarrhoea, stomach ailments and skin diseases.

Amir had recently complained several times that the island would completely run out of water during the weekend if the government does not provide it for them urgently.


”Hithaadhu will run out of water in a day,” warns island councilor

Councilor of Hithaadhoo in Baa Atoll Amir Abdul Latheef has claimed the island will run out of water over the weekend if the government does not provide it for them urgently.

Amir said the island office had reports that some people on the island had begun using well water for drinking and cooking, a practice banned by the Health Ministry twelve years ago due to the impurity of the ground water in the island.

”All the water tanks are now almost empty,” Amir said. ”We informed [the government] office one week ago. They said they would deliver water to us, but there has been no response after that.”

He said the islanders were worried over the issue and wondering what to do if the government did not provide aid for them.

He said there was a total population of 1222 people on the island of Hithaadhoo.

Councilor of Kihaadhoo in Baa Atoll Abdulla Naseem said some people on the island had also started using well water for cooking as there was not enough water on the island.

Naseem said the ground water of the island was impure due to sewerage.

”Fifty per-cent of the ground water is polluted while water from some areas is totally impure,” he said.

He said the island would run out of water in two to three months.

”We have already informed [the government] that we might run out of water,” he said. ”Last time the government provided 30,000 litres of water.”

He said 425 people lived on the Island of Kihaadhoo.

State minister for health Abdul Baary Abdulla said there was a long list of islands where the ministry had banned the use of water to drink and cook.

Baary said there were many diseases that could potentially result from the use of contaminated water, including diarrhoea, stomach ailments and skin diseases.


Baa Atoll ‘running out of water’, say residents

A prolonged dry spell has led to critical shortages of fresh water on several islands in Baa Atoll.

The islands of Kendhu, Kihadhu and Kamadhu in Baa Atoll are among the islands afraid that they might completely run out of rain water if the government does not provide aid.

Island councilor of Kendhu Adbul Rahman said the water stored in the tanks was running low as it had not rained for a long time.

”We use rain water for cooking, cleaning and drinking, and it would be very difficult for us if the tanks run out,” Rahman said.

Rahman said water tanks on some of the island’s had run dry, forcing the occupants to now sharing water with neighbours.

”It is possible all the tanks with be empty if does not rain soon,” he said, explaining that the islanders were doing a survey “and after that if we think we should ask for help from the government, we will.”

He said this happened every year during at same time, and noted that the government helped only last year.

Island chief for Kihadhu Adnan Ibrahim said that six 5000 litre tanks on the island were now empty.

”We just sent the message to the Atoll office,” Adnan said. “People are now sharing water from those neighbour whose water tanks are not empty.”

Adnan said there were water tanks on every house,  but many of them were now empty.

”The government has provided us a 10000 litre water tank but it is too big and not usable,” he said. ”It’s too long and its very difficult to clean.”

He said the islanders relied on only rainwater for everything.

Island councilor of Kamadhu Ahmed Shafeeq also said their water tanks would be empty very soon if it did not rain.

Shafeeq said the government had helped them only last year when their water tanks ran out.

”if the government did not provide aid we might run out of water,” he said.

Press secretary for the president’s office Mohamed Zuhair, State minister for Home Affairs Ahmed Adil and Atoll Councilor Mohamed Habib did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.


Ministry drags heels on shark hunting ban

The Ministry of Fisheries has deferred implementing a total ban on shark hunting, citing concerns over finding alternative livelihoods for shark fishermen.

In a press release issued on Monday, the Ministry said a total ban on shark hunting will come into effect but only after the cabinet discusses the issue in a meeting understood to take place next Tuesday.

The press release, at times confusing and poorly worded, also appears to imply that the shark hunting ban will not be enforced until all shark fishermen find alternative livelihoods.

Meanwhile environmentalists are disappointed at the Ministry’s failure to implement the promised shark-hunting ban on time.

On 1 March 2009, the Ministry of Fisheries announced a ban on hunting reef sharks in the Maldives. The 2009 ban did, however, permit the hunting of oceanic sharks 12 miles or more from the Maldivian coastline. The Ministry said they would impose a total ban on all shark hunting by 1 March 2010.

At the time, the ministry said it needed a year before introducing the total ban in order to facilitate alternative sources of income for shark fishermen.

“A year is a long time to prepare for a shark ban, but the Ministry has made no attempt to find alternatives for these fishermen” says Ali Rilwan, director of environmental NGO Bluepeace.

The delay

“If government does not have funds [to find fishermen new jobs], they could appeal directly to the beneficiaries, to those who love sharks. For a noble cause, a lot of people will contribute,” suggested Rilwan.

He says resorts, dive schools and well-wishers could help compensate and find alternative mechanisms for fishermen, adding that all stakeholders have to shoulder the responsibility.

Director General of Environmental Research Center, Dr Mohamed Shiham Adam, says the government still needs to consider the impacts of a total ban: “How many fishermen will be affected, and how much [fishing] gear will have to be thrown away?”

“It is a difficult time for the fishing industry. Fishermen are unable to pay back loans they have taken, and the industry is in such a dire condition that MPs have planned to give subsidies also,” Dr Shiham added.

Dr Shiham did say that the government was determined to implement the total ban.

“No matter what happens in the cabinet meeting, the government is steadfast in its intention,” he said.

Dr Shiham said that the government is working with private tuna export companies to increase job opportunities. He further noted that the government is offering loans for the development of small and medium sized enterprises for fishing and agriculture.

But independent experts are unimpressed with the Ministry’s progress over the past year.

“If we had done awareness programmes through the year, it would have been easier to implement the shark ban now,” said Marie Saleem, an environmental consultant who helped draw up the 2009 ban.

“The responsibility to find alternative income opportunities lies with both parties, the fishermen and the government. The latter has to provide aid to enable the fishermen to find an alternative source [of income].”

More valuable alive

Tourism Minister Dr Ali Sawad is a firm advocate of the ban on shark hunting. Diving and snorkeling trips net the Maldivian tourist industry tens of millions of dollars per year, and many divers say sighting a shark is the highlight of an underwater visit.

Dr Sawad said the tourism industry would be prepared to help former shark fishermen.

“The tourism industry will shoulder their part and other sectors also have to participate and give their due share,” he said.

He added that the shark ban would give tourism a boost, which would benefit the wider economy.

“This is not just a tourism issue. It is a national issue.”

Environmental Enforcement

Guy Stevens, a marine biologist at the Four Seasons resort Landaa Giravaru, in Baa Atoll, says enforcement of any proposed ban is of paramount importance.

“Shark fishing is already banned in and around atoll waters. However, it is still happening. Some people are even shark fishing in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs),” he said.

Stevens says photographic evidence of fishermen hunting sharks within Baa Atoll, complete with boat registration numbers, had been forwarded to the relevant authorities but no action has been taken.

He acknowledged that shark fishermen need help to find alternative sources of income “but the penalties should be there and action taken if a person breaks the law.”

“In the last five to six years, there has been a huge decrease in sharks. During every dive we used to see at least see half a dozen sharks… now half a dozen are spotted in a year.”