Nasheed’s lawyer arrested in Addu City

Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s lawyer has been arrested by police in Addu City after allegedly disobeying police orders on Wednesday night (March 27).

Hisaan Hussain, who is part of Nasheed’s legal team, told local media that she had been arrested shortly after her husband was detained by police earlier in the evening.

Local media reported that police had conducted an inspection at Hithadhoo Kalhibis beach barbecue area following reports that people had been intoxicated in the area.

According to Hisaan, her husband had been arrested after he had questioned the actions of the police when they turned up to the family event.

Hisaan claimed that she was then later arrested when she went to Hithadhoo Police Station to submit a request to act as her husband’s lawyer.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has since claimed that the arrest of Hisaan – who has now been released by authorities along with her husband – was a direct attempt by police to intimidate Nasheed’s lawyers.

“We see it as pure harassment. The Police are trying to intimidate lawyers who represent the MDP and President Nasheed. It is extremely disturbing that the police have again displayed their complete disregard to the law.

“We urge the Police and the Police Integrity Commission to look into the matter and take urgent action against those officers who continue to violate the law & brutalise Women,” President Nasheed’s spokesperson MP Mariya Didi claimed.

Contrary to reports in local media, a statement from the MDP claimed that police had searched the area under a law relating to gang violence.

The MDP statement further claimed that Hisaan, who is 24 weeks pregnant, had been pushed to the ground by police, while her husband was punched in the face by an officer.

Police Spokesperson Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef was not responding to calls or text messages from Minivan News at time of press.

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Six Senses and Biosphere Expeditions offering reef conservation scholarships

Biosphere Expeditions and Six Senses properties are offering two scholarships for Maldivians with dive qualifications and English language skills, to take part in a new coral reef and whale shark study being conducted in September 2011.

Scholarship recipients will be trained in reef and whale shark research techniques and assist scientists from around the world in a study designed to provide data to the Maldivian government so that it can make informed conservation decisions.

The project, based on the liveaboard Carpe Diem cruising the archipelago, will see Biosphere Expeditions working with the Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, Reef Check and the Marine Conservation Society to study and safeguard the coral reefs and the resident whale shark population.

Biologist Matthias Hammer, Reef Check trainer and Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions, described the reefs of the Maldives archipelago and its fish population as “extraordinarily diverse and rich. They are also in a relatively pristine state and having both these factors together is quite rare. As less than one per cent of the world’s oceans are protected, it is very important that we monitor and manage areas that are doing well.”

The economy and the well-being of the entire nation, Hammer said, “is largely dependent on a healthy and sustainably-managed marine environment.”

Marine Biologist Kate Wilsonat Six Senses’ property Soneva Fushi in Baa Atoll observed that the scholarships would allow Maldivians “to work alongside and learn from some top marine biologists, enabling them to get hands-on experience of monitoring coral reef ecosystems and whale sharks in the Maldives. It is a fantastic opportunity for keen and enthusiastic divers that want to develop skills in marine surveying, enabling them to continue surveying long after the scholarship ends.”

Six Senses said in a statement that successful scholarship applicants “need to be able to demonstrate a genuine interest in the marine environment and [show] that they will use the experience to the benefit of the Maldives’ marine resources, carrying the message to other people and multiplying the effect of their experience.”

The deadline for applications deadline is July 29, with the expedition taking place in September later this year. Applicants must be 18 or older. For more information visit www.biosphere-expeditions.org/scholarships

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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.”

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Jellyfish sting inspires first book on dangerous Maldives marine life

The waters surrounding the Maldives have an international reputation for spectacular diving that entices hordes of visitors to the country every year.

Much of the credit for this goes to the prolific marine life, which ensures even the sharks are friendly – a flailing tourist is a difficult meal when all a shark has to do is open its mouth for the fish to swim inside.

But when injuries at the fins, spines, teeth and tentacles of marine life do occur, local medical facilities have proven ill-prepared to deal with them.

When local marine biologist Verena Wiesbauer Ali visited an island doctor following a nasty sting from a Pelagia panopyra (Purple Jellyfish), he asked her why she had eaten one.

“I had swam through a soup of jellyfish and the itching was so bad I couldn’t sleep,” she recalls.

The doctor treated the symptoms with an IV and some anti-histamines, but later told her there was little literature available on the country’s dangerous or toxic marine life.

“His diagnosis was ‘fish stinger’,” she says. “I felt sympathetic so I took in a photo of the jellyfish the next day and the doctor began to ask a lot of other questions.”

Much of the literature Verena found was in German, and the treatments were varied. Conventional wisdom, such as applying vinegar to a jellyfish wound to deactivate the poison, was not always the case: “If you apply vinegar to the sting of a Portugese Man o’ War, it can have the opposite effect,” Verena discovered.

Researching further she did find a great many local stories along the lines of “‘there’s an animal this shape and this wide, and if you touch it your arm will fall off.'”

Assembling a team of doctors and marine biologists, including Dr Jens Lindner and Dr Reinhard Kilinger, she decided to write the Maldives’ first reference to dangerous, venomous and poisonous marine animals.

“We felt the need for a doctor’s reference that gives a detailed description of symptoms and recommendations for medical treatment,” she says, adding that one important inclusion was a Dhivehi reference dictionary for the local names of different species and dangerous seafood, such as sea urchins.

Beyond medical applications, Verena says the authors tried to make the book accessible “for anyone coming into contact with the sea, from snorkelers and divers to tourists and marine biologists.”

It includes information and treatment instructions for creatures like lion fish (“from a group known as scorpion fish that have quite strong venom – the display they make by spreading their fins is to show prey ‘I’m poisonous'”), sharks (“there are 35 species in the Maldives, including tiger sharks which can be more aggressive”,) and sting rays.

“Sting rays lie on the sea floor feeding on mollusks,” Verena explains. “They will move away from a person, but if stepped on they have venomous spines in their tail that can be fatal, as with [Australian TV personality] Steve Irwin. Most people are hit in the shin, but the spine is serrated and it normally has to be pushed through the limb; you can’t pull it, although now we can operate it out.”

Even seemingly-harmless surgeon fish can cause painful injuries: “They have a blade at the base of their tail fin.”

At a presentation on the book to doctors and nurses at Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) today, president of the Maldivian Medical Association Dr Azeez Yoosuf noted that while Male’s roads caused more injuries than the country’s waters, “there is a lot of inappropriate treatment of injuries caused by marine creatures.”

“We come across island hospitals where wounds caused by sting rays have been nicely stitched up, but because of the toxins the wound becomes necrotic. It’s better to keep the wound open, but the tendency is to stitch it,” he explains.

Surgeon fish injuries were surprisingly common, he added. “You can safely swim through a school of surgeon fish. But curious tourists sometimes try to pat them and get a big cut on their hand, which can become a problem because the [tail] can be covered in a lot of slime.”

As for the tremendously poisonous stonefish, “we don’t have the anti-venom, it’s only available in Australia. We just treat the pain.”

Despite their fearsome reputation, shark attacks were very rare, he said.

“The only shark bite I’ve seen was on someone who caught one and tried to get the fishhook out by putting his hand in the [live] shark’s mouth.”

The traditional treatment for jellyfish stings, he noted, was “hot urine or alcohol.”

Inspired by a jellyfish sting
Inspired by a jellyfish sting

“Dangerous Marine Animals – Biology, Injuries & Medical Treatment” (Kikinger, Lindner, Wiesbauer-Ali 2009) is printed and published in the Maldives and is available directly from the publisher Atoll Images, Ma. Shah, Dhidhi Goalhi, Male’ (3341643).

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One minute to midnight for Maldives’ corals

From the air, the Maldives is a breath-taking vision to behold. White sand islands encircled by cerulean lagoons lie scattered in the navy sea. Delve beneath its turquoise waters and it is equally spectacular. A panoply of psychedelic fish, honeycomb moray eels, violet soldierfish and orange-striped triggerfish to name a few, flit among a treasure trove of coral.

But while the Maldives has grabbed headlines world over for being one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, fated to disappear beneath the waves if sea levels continue to rise, its underwater Shangri-La has received little press.

If the experts are right, however, the Maldives’ coral reefs are in terminal decline. A UN report entitled The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity released last week in Berlin, stated the world’s coral infrastructure and accompanying biodiversity would be the first ecosystem to go due to climbing greenhouse gases.

Bedrock

The message is critical; the reality is grim. “Corals are the foundation of the whole ecosystem, the building blocks of the reef itself,” said Guy Stevens, a British marine biologist at Four Seasons resort. “If the reef went, the Maldives would cease to exist, the islands themselves would be eroded and washed away. Without them, there’s nothing.”

Anke Hofmeister, a German marine biologist at Soneva Fushi resort is similarly pessimistic. “We can always argue that the coral reefs are recovering… but there’s definitely reason to think the reefs will disappear…this is the tipping point.”

Their fear is not unfounded. Anthropogenic carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases continue to drive global warming. Add into the mix, the local hazards of overfishing, an inadequate waste management system and population expansion, and corals have little chance of survival.

The vast colonies of coral, the bedrock of the Indian Ocean archipelago, are formed by the calcium carbonate secretions of tiny creatures called polyps. Living within the polyps, microscopic algae, zooxanthellae, take carbon dioxide for photosynthesise in return for food. As corals die, their calcium exoskeletons turn to limestone providing the perfect foundation for new generations of polyps to settle.

Yet while it has taken nature millennia to create the chain of 1,192 coral islands, it has taken humankind just over a hundred years to virtually wipe it out. The country’s fragile ecosystem lies on a knife-edge as concentrations of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere already exceed the safe threshold of 350 ppm.

Humanitarian catastrophe

Failure to curb emissions will condemn reefs to extinction, leading to dire economic, social and humanitarian consequences. In the Maldives, both tourism and fishing, which provides 71% of national employment and 49% of public revenue, will be hard hit. “Our whole existence, our livelihoods depends on reefs. It is a human rights issue because it will affect our right to life,” says Hussein Zahir, a senior reef ecologist at the country’s Marine Research Centre.

The loss of the Maldives’ coral ramparts will cripple the country’s ability to protect itself against extreme weather events caused by global warming. A government report estimates reefs absorb up to 90% of a wave’s force. As one of the lowest lying countries in the world, the Maldives is particularly vulnerable to waves, storm surges, cyclones and rises in sea level.

El Nino, the mass bleaching event of 1998, was the single most cataclysmic event in the history of coral degeneration in the Maldives. Up to 90% of the nation’s corals in some parts of the country were killed following the three-degree rise in ocean temperatures. Stressed out polyps evicted their colourful tenants – zooxanthellae – and were left a ghostly shade of white. For Stevens, the threat of one-off catastrophes such as El Nino pose one of the biggest threats to coral reefs.

Accelerating

Although a natural phenomenon, scientists predict that as sea temperatures rise, such incidents of large-scale bleaching will increase. “The frequency and magnitude are linked with global warming,” says Stevens. “As we warm up the earth, we are playing with the natural cycles, upsetting the equilibrium. Before a drought in one area of the world might result in a flood somewhere else. It was a see-sawing effect, but now there’s no balance.”

Hard on the heels of the tribulations faced by corals is another more critical threat. In June, the national science academies of 70 countries signed a statement warning that rising acidity in the world’s oceans would lead to a global catastrophe. The scientists said the oceans were more acidic than they had been for the past 800,000 years and urged ocean acidification to be put on the agenda at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December.

Oceans have absorbed around half of all carbon dioxide produced by humans since the industrial revolution, slowing global warming. But an overabundance of the greenhouse gas has tipped the balance. The resulting high levels of acidity impair the ability of some organisms to secrete calcium carbonate. This applies not only to polyps but a host of marine creatures, among them, phytoplankton – microscopic algae at the bottom of the food chain, responsible for producing half of the world’s oxygen. “It’s quite alarming if we think that it’s the base of the food chain,” says Verena Wiesbauer, a marine biologist at Water Solutions, an environmental consultancy firm in the Maldives.

A minute to midnight

Despite the doomsday scenario predicted by many scientists, marine biologists at the country’s luxury resorts are hard at work in search of stop-gap measures to buffer reefs from further climatic hardship. Coral propagation is one such technique. Fragments of coral are attached to a variety of structures from cement discs to electrified steel frames designed to encourage the birth of new colonies. The results so far have proved promising.

But while coral gardening may be an important conservation tool, most marine biologists agree it is not a large-scale solution. “There may be localised benefits from coral transplanting projects but in the long-term we need to concentrate on how to preserve what nature has given us,” says Hofmeister. “Ecosystems have been established over so many millions of years and you can’t just rebuild that.”

For now, the consensus is that coral reefs are teetering on the precipice of extinction. “It is one minute to 12,” says Wiesbauer. “The problem is that economy will always win and ecology will always lose.”

The climate change talks offer a glimmer of hope. If world leaders are able to put national interests aside and thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol then coral reefs may have a chance at survival.

Failure to commit to drastic cuts in greenhouse gases emissions will sound the death knell for coral reefs and spell the beginning of the end for other ecosystems. As a microcosm of the world, the plight of the Maldives and its fragile reef should be heeded, says Hofmeister. “We see the effects much much earlier here than other countries,” she says. “But it is only a matter of time before what happens here, happens to the rest of the world.”

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