Identifying Conservation Priorities for a Widespread Dugong Population in the Red Sea: Megaherbivore Grazing Patterns Inform Management Planning

Khamis, Abdulqader; Alcoverro, Teresa; D’Souza, Elrika; Arthur, Rohan; Pagès, Jordi F.; Shah, Junid N.; Al-Qahtani, Tareq; Eweida, Ameer Abdulla.  Marine Environmental Research : doi:1016/j.marenvres.2022.105762. DIGITAL CSIC  

Extensive home ranges of marine megafauna present a challenge for systematic conservation planning because they exceed spatial scales of conventional management. For elusive species like dugongs, their management is additionally hampered by a paucity of basic distributional information across much of their range. The Red Sea is home to a wide-spread, globally important but data-poor population of dugongs. We surveyed the north-eastern Red Sea in the waters of NEOM, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to locate feeding sites and determine priority areas for dugong conservation. We conducted large-scale in-water surveys of dugong feeding trails across 27 seagrass meadows that span 0.7 degree of latitude and recorded nine seagrass species and 13 dugong feeding sites. Spread over ~ 4‚061 km2 of nearshore and offshore waters, many of these sites clustered around five main core feeding areas. Dugong feeding trails were mostly recorded at sites dominated by the fast-growing pioneer seagrasses Halodule uninervis, Halophila ovalis and/or H. stipulacea. Multispecific meadows with pioneer seagrasses tended to be sheltered and shallow, reflecting a similar spatial pattern to the identified dugong feeding sites. Often close to hotels and fishing harbours, these high-use dugong areas are subject to high boat traffic, fishing, and coastal development which places considerable pressures on this vulnerable mammal and its seagrass habitat. The rapidly accelerating coastal development in the northern Red Sea directly threatens the future of its dugong population. Although our sampling focuses on feeding signs in early successional seagrasses, the results are valuable to spatial conservation planning as they will trigger overdue conservation interventions for a globally threatened species in a data-poor area. Urgent dugong conservation management actions in the northern Red Sea should focus on shallow waters sheltered by coastal lagoons, bays and the lee of large islands.