3 January 2017: Bahrain is renowned for its world-famous, high quality pearls. They have a unique lustre because they are formed in seawater through which bubbles of fresh water flow from the sand below.
The pearls are found in a species of oyster known as “pearl-forming oysters”.
The trail was recently listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site due to its prestigious cultural and natural value which the government is keen to preserve.
Pearling (extracting pearls) in Bahrain used to contribute significantly to the economy. The high quality pearls were exported worldwide. The industry, however, began to decline after the appearance of cheaper, cultured pearls from Japan, which were also of high quality. The discovery of oil in Bahrain also affected pearling, as the oil industry offered better wages, enticing pearl divers to move to more profitable jobs.
“The establishment of the pearling protected area has contributed to efforts to revive the vanishing pearling industry and its associated national heritage,” says Abdulqader Khamis, a marine biologist.
“Representatives of pearl divers, pearl traders, the local community and tourism authorities, among others, were involved in the design of the protected areas. Proposals for establishing training centres for pearl divers, local fishermen and cruise operators were incorporated in the area’s management plan. The project has gained considerable public recognition, resulting in. Bahrain’s biodiversity action plans prioritizing conservation and sustainable use of marine resources. We are hoping this will help us to secure adequate funds, thus avoiding any interruptions in implementation.”
After repetitive bleaching incidences, the branching corals Acropodis disappeared from all major reefs in Bahrain apart from the Pearling Protected Area.
Pollution, dredging and overfishing
“Land filling and dredging operations unfortunately lead to the smothering of benthic species – millions of microscopic species that sustain fisheries, corals, mangroves and sea grass beds,” says UN Environment biodiversity expert Diane Klaimi.
“UN Environment advises avoiding these practices as much as possible and using international guidelines for the safe use of technologies such as silt curtains to reduce the harmful impact of silt plumes.”
Pearl-forming oysters, like other living creatures, are sensitive to changes in the environment.
“The pearl oyster habitats and the biodiversity they host are under pressure from human activity,” says Reem Al-Mealla, a local marine biologist.
The brain corals (Favia spp.) are common in the Pearling Protected Area.
Overfishing is another problem.
Since 2000, there have been concerns about bottom-trawling which indiscriminately scoops up all species of fish, sea turtles, as well as pearl-forming oysters. Larger holes in nets have been partially successful in reducing bycatch, but baby sea turtles and other juvenile creatures are still getting caught.
Furthermore, amateur divers and people engaged in spear fishing often fail to take due care of the fragile oyster beds and coral reefs - for instance, while swimming they may accidently kick and damage the coral reefs.
The nudibranch Gonibranchus annulatus adds vivid colors to the Pearling Protected Area.
Preserving a historic sector
UN Environment’s West Asia office has been supporting the conservation of oyster habitats and pearling for many years.
“We cooperate with Bahrain’s Supreme Council for the Environment on a number of issues and provide the government and the region with advisory services, policy guidance and capacity development on climate change related matters, resource efficiency, land and coastal degradation, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution, science and law,” says Klaimi.
UN Environment also assists the government in the development of science-based integrated strategies for land, water, energy and food production, taking into consideration the needs of the society and the economy.
“We help the government to integrate the strategies into national development plans and the financial agenda of the country,” says Klaimi. “It is then up to the government to take stringent measures to implement them. We also showcase best practices from around the world through international conventions that Bahrain actively participates at.”
“It’s a global responsibility to preserve the culture and sector , especially now that the Kingdom of Bahrain has taken a responsible move to declare the Pearling Trail as a World Heritage Site,” says Iyad Abumoghli, the UN Environment office’s regional director.
In Bahrain’s waters, the Clark’s Anemonefish Amphiprion clarkii is found mainly in the Pearling Protected Area.
Pearling activities have the potential to be fully revived, creating a promising future for the sector as well as maintaining an extremely important element of the country’s cultural heritage. “The future is promising but financing and awareness are key to achieving this,” says Klaimi.For further information, please contact Diane Klaimi: Diane.Klaimi[at]unep.org