In the early spring of 2015, the Don Questo team generously sponsored five marine scientists from KAUST (the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia) to carry out marine science and education during a one-‐week liveaboard cruise. The expedition covered the northern, central, and southern regions of the Sudanese coast, allowing access to coral reefs that very few marine scientists have ever visited. The marine science team successfully completed a number of visual coral reef surveys, assessing both benthic (coral) cover and the fish communities at multiple reef sites. The following report summarizes the expedition and preliminary results of the Sudanese coral reef surveys.
The Red Sea as a whole remains a largely understudied region of the global ocean, particularly in comparison to areas such as the Caribbean Sea and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (Berumen et al. 2013). However, the 2009 establishment of KAUST along the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast has led to a significant increase in knowledge of this unique marine environment in recent years. Marine scientists at KAUST have been cataloguing marine biodiversity of Saudi Arabian coral reefs and establishing baseline data. While it is strongly suspected that decades of mismanagement have led to undocumented degradation of many Saudi Arabian coral reefs, it is difficult to say so for certain. Without any historical data to compare to, current information on these reefs stands alone. And this is why the KAUST marine science team was eager to visit the coral reefs on the other side of the Red Sea, in the Sudan.
Exploitation of Sudanese coral reef living resources (fish) is, along with Eritrea, the lowest among the seven countries bordering the Red Sea basin (Tesfamichael and Pitcher 2006). Because Sudanese Red Sea reefs exist under similar environmental conditions as Saudi Arabian reefs of comparable latitude (Raitsos et al. 2013), the KAUST team hypothesized that underexploited Sudanese reefs could serve as baselines for their Saudi Arabian counterparts. In other words, “pristine” Sudanese coral reefs could serve as a window into the past for how overexploited Saudi Arabian reefs may once have looked. Given this assumption, the KAUST marine science team carried out a series of surveys to compare both the benthic (bottom) and fish communities between the Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
Preliminary results from the Sudan expedition aboard the Don Questo show that while benthic (coral) composition and structure remains similar between Saudi Arabia and Sudan (the physical reefs “look” the same), the fish communities tell a very different story. Total fish biomass on Sudanese reefs is approximately 3 times greater than on comparable Saudi Arabian reefs. Importantly, much of this dramatic difference is due to significantly higher numbers of top predators still inhabiting Sudanese coral reefs. This includes sharks, large jacks, groupers, snappers, and barracudas -‐ the types of fish species that are normally the first to be harvested from coral reefs. In Saudi Arabia, the biomass of this important group of large predators is a mere 15 percent of that found on Sudanese coral reefs!
These results do in fact indicate that Sudanese coral reefs are quite healthy, especially compared to coral reefs of Saudi Arabia, where overfishing is very evident. This information has important implications for both Red Sea states. For Saudi Arabia, it is a wake-‐up call that enhanced management of coral reef fisheries should be a priority and that restoration goals should be appropriated considering the current state of comparable Sudanese reefs. For the Sudan, management officials need to recognize the high value of their living marine resources and act to oversee their sustainable exploitation while preserving select areas as “no-‐take” sites that can continue to support and grow a special dive tourism economy.
This very successful expedition aboard the Don Questo helped to increase the scientific understanding of coral reefs in the understudied central Red Sea region. Data collected during the cruise has shed light on how fishing can dramatically alter coral reef fish communities while also demonstrating how the Don Questo liveaboard company really does offer the best diving in the Red Sea! And in addition to the scientific work undertaken during the expedition, the KAUST team was also happy to present daily lectures to 10 recreational divers who helped to fund the trip. Various topics were covered, including shark conservation, coral biology, and fish identification. The participating divers thoroughly enjoyed the unique opportunity to dive and learn with marine scientists, saying that it added a significant and special value to their trip.
On behalf of the participating marine scientists, I would like to warmly thank Captain Lorenzo, Instructor and Guide Maurizio, and the Don Questo crew for their incredible hospitality, service, and professionalism with aboard the ship. Our team would also like to recognize the efforts of Sara Valla and Stefano Colombari, who worked so hard to make this cooperative expedition a reality. The generous sponsorship of the Don Questo liveaboard company demonstrates the organization’s strong and admirable commitment towards supporting marine science, conservation, and stewardship of their Sudanese coral reefs. The expedition was a complete pleasure, and we at KAUST look forward to once again working together in the future!