KARACHI: Despite being declared a marine protected area more than two years ago, the Astola Island — Pakistan’s largest uninhabited offshore island located 20 nautical miles east of Pasni — is still without a management plan. This situation could harm its rich biodiversity facing multiple threats, including growing oil pollution, introduction of exotic species and irresponsible tourism.

These concerns were raised at a consultation workshop organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan at a hotel here on Thursday.

It focused on how an effective area-wise management plan could be developed for the Astola Island, which was declared the first Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Pakistan on 15 June 2017.

This declaration, according to experts, was a major step for Pakistan towards compliance with the ‘Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, which requires that by 2020 at least 10 per cent of the coastal and marine areas are protected and conserved’.

“This declaration was seen in a positive light but the lack of management plan after passing of more than two and half years raises questions about the protection of the island and the associated biodiversity that is facing multiple issues,” noted Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Khan, Technical Adviser of Marine Fisheries at WWF-Pakistan.

Threats to the island, according to him, are ghost nets, unprecedented increase in irresponsible tourism activities, introduction of exotic species in the area, extraction of corals and ivory shells and rise in the population of exotic species such as feral cats on the island and growth of invasive plants, for instance, mesquites (wild keekar).

Khan also dealt in detail about the island’s biodiversity and said it was home to unique wildlife species.

“The island supports 61 species of birds, 20 species of reptiles, 84 species of plants and 6 species of cetaceans, which include the Indo-Pacific finless porpoise and endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale,” he said, adding that 130 species of fishes had also been reported from the area.

Speaking about Astola Island’s management plan, Dr Muhammad Saeed Jamali, secretary of forests and wildlife of Balochistan, said such a plan was very much needed and the government was making efforts to conserve the important biodiversity of the area.

“The Balochistan government will provide full support if any initiatives are taken by WWF-Pakistan for protection of the Astola Island.”

He suggested that local fishing communities should be taken on board for the management plan and called for designation of specific areas as ‘core and resource use zones’ around the island that need to be protected.

Ashiq Ahmed Khan, a senior conservationist and expert on protected area management, was of the opinion that the development of a management plan for the Astola Island would certainly take time but this was a good starting point in the right direction.

“We need to take into consideration the socio-economic aspects of local fishers and issues related with livelihood needs. Good practices need to be promoted and bad practices should be discouraged at Astola,” he said.

He emphasised on research studies that could help address the pressing conservation issues in Pakistan.

Dr Babar Khan, director of wildlife at the WWF-P, talked about how safe ecotourism could be promoted on the island.

“Its dazzling shore, crystal clear waters and rich biodiversity offer a fabulous future destination for ecotourism. The island is an important source of livelihood and income for local fishing communities,” he pointed out, adding that the island also had high cultural, biological and aesthetic value apart from economic significance.

Raja Naeem Ashraf, director of biodiversity at the ministry of climate change, said out of the nine ecologically significant sites along the Arabian Sea which were identified as potential marine protected areas, only Astola Island was declared the marine protected area.

He further informed the audience that consultations were under way to declare other marine areas protected to meet the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11.

He also shared that there was more marine life in the oceans as compared to the terrestrial wildlife which required joint efforts of line departments for its protection.

Part of the workshop was also a group work conducted to develop a spatial management plan for Astola Island in which participants were divided into four groups.

They discussed gaps in existing acts and rules applicable on the Astola Island, natural resources of the area, socio-economic and cultural aspects for local communities, provision of livelihoods and threats to the island.

Dr Ejaz Ahmed, former deputy director at WWF-P, Umair Shahid, manager tuna programme for Northern Indian Ocean (NIO) at WWF-Mozambique and Umeed Khalid, former conservator wildlife at the ministry of climate change also spoke.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2019