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Astola island declared country’s first marine protected area

Updated June 16, 2017
A large flock of greater crested terns at Astola island. The island is also known as Jezira Haft Talar (Island of the Seven Hills) because of the small, rocky mountains that stretch across the island.
A large flock of greater crested terns at Astola island. The island is also known as Jezira Haft Talar (Island of the Seven Hills) because of the small, rocky mountains that stretch across the island.

KARACHI: Astola island, a major biodiversity hotspot and the largest island along Pakistan’s coast, was declared the country’s first marine protected area through a notification issued by the Balochistan government on Thursday.

The island covers an area of about 400 square kilometres and is located 39km east of Pasni, Balochistan. It is home to several species of marine and terrestrial animals and plants. The deadly Russell’s viper (Echis carinatus astolae), a highly venomous snake, is endemic to the island. It also a nesting place for many sea birds, especially the greater crested tern (Thalasseus bergii), which have thousands of nests on the island.

Astola Island’s sandy beaches are a nesting ground for green turtles and around 25 species of coral have been found in the ocean around it.

The Arabian Sea humpback whale, one of the rarest marine mammals, has occasionally been sighted in its surrounding area.

“By declaring the Astola island a marine protected area, Pakistan has started its compliance with the Aichi Target 11, which requires that by 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas are to be conserved,” Muhammad Moazzam Khan, technical adviser on marine fisheries with the WWF-P, said. The step taken by the Balochistan government would ensure that the island’s biodiversity would be protected, the use of deleterious fishing methods will be stopped and recreational activities would be controlled, he added.

“It will also ensure that protected, threatened and endangered species of crustaceans, coral, mammals, sharks, turtles, whales and mobulids will be conserved. Moreover, whale sharks, sunfish, guitarfish and seabirds will not be harvested or killed,” he said.

According to Mr Khan, Article 2 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to which Pakistan is a signatory, requires nations to designate, regulate and manage geographically-defined areas (marine protected areas) to achieve specific conservation objectives.

Appreciating the efforts of Balochistan and federal governments, Rab Nawaz, a senior director of programmes at WWF-P, said: “Conservation of marine ecosystems, processes, habitats and species would contribute to the restoration and replenishment of resources for social, economic, and cultural enrichment. The WWF started collecting information on the Astola Island in 1990 and has published many reports on its biodiversity.”

Mahmood Akhtar Cheema, country representative of the International Union for Conse­rvation of Nature, described the declaration on Astola island as a great achievement and said it’s the first major policy step towards protection and conservation of marine life.

“In 2015, the National Coordinating Body (NCB) of Mangroves for the Future Pakistan, headed by the Ministry of Climate Change, constituted a working group [to undertake] the identification of potential sites to be designated as marine protected areas in Pakistan.

“Subsequently, a motion submitted from Pakistan was adopted at the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2016 calling for the declaration of Astola Island as a marine protected area in Pakistan,” he recalled.

Citing international conventions on nature conservation, he pointed out that Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 had called for conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resou­rces for sustainable development (SDG 14).

“The government of Balo­chistan is pleased to declare Astola Island in Gwadar district as a marine protected area,” says the notification issued by the Forest and Wildlife Department of the Balochistan government.

The reason for awarding the island a protected status, according to the notification, is to protect, conserve and restore species, habitat, biodiversity, and ecological processes which may be adversely affected as a result of human activities or otherwise.

“The Astola Island Marine Protected Area of Balochistan shall be accessible to the public for recreation and education subject to the restrictions as and when prescribed by the government.

“Change in land and sea use shall not be allowed in the protected area except with prior permission of the government, where the change is likely to enhance the conservation value of the protected area in terms of biodiversity and other elements of nature subject to and within the permitted scope of Conv­ention on Biological Dive­rsity,” the notification says.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2017