Dugongs are believed to have been at the origin of mermaid legends when spotted swimming in the water from a distance. Now the remaining populations of this seemingly clumsy sea mammal, commonly known as a sea cow, are at serious risk of becoming extinct within the next 40 years.
At an international meeting this week on dugongs convened by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (UNEP/CMS) in Abu Dhabi, governments, International and Non-Governmental Organizations and experts discussed solutions to protect the world's only herbivorous mammal living in marine waters.
CMS Executive Secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema said: 'Simple innovative tools and new incentives for local fishermen have been presented to the signatories to the CMS dugong agreement, which might prevent this rare species from becoming extinct.'
A newly developed innovative toolbox to mitigate threats to dugongs includes incentives to replace harmful gillnets with alternative fishing gear to reduce bycatch and minimize the mortality rates.
According to an assessment undertaken in 2008, the dugong is now extinct in the Maldives, Mauritius and Taiwan, and declining in other waters in at least a third of the areas where it is found. However, at present, information on the dugongs is too limited to even assess completely the threats.
Manmade threats pose the greatest risk to the gentle sea cow. Illegal poaching, unsustainable hunting by local communities, severe injuries from ships and vanishing seagrass beds are accelerating a critical loss of habitat and threatening populations.
The use of gillnets has led to the incidental entanglement in fishing gear, which is also a major threat. As fisheries become increasingly commercialized, bycatch will become even more frequent and serious. The second largest threat is unsustainable direct consumption which can result once a dugong is caught in the nets. In addition, dugongs are also legally hunted by local communities in some countries for traditional consumption.