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Spearfishing by Scuba & Freedivers Impacting Saudi Marine Environment

Spear fishing with scuba tanks is illegal in Saudi Arabia. However, it is happening within a few kilometers of Jeddah and threatening the huge potential that the marine environment of the Red Sea offers for tourism.

Locally chartered boats are taking divers of all nationalities out to wrecks and reefs and profiting from the charters, watching as the very source of their tourism-based income is being killed off.

The fish taken are often inedible and sometimes not of reproducing age. The former are used for photographs with the spear-fisherman, the latter thrown back. The killing of immature fish taken from the reef means that breeding stocks fall and the fish population will die out.

Sharks, predators that have lived in the sea unchanged for over 600 million years, are prize targets for many spear fishermen. Reliable reports suggest that many have been killed and thrown back after being used as a photographic prop.

Several divers who have been recording the degradation of the reefs off Jeddah for decades, and who asked not to be named, told Arab News in a recent interview that they had seen local charter boats on popular dive sites depositing divers with spear guns and scuba equipment into the water. They identified the boats and the owners, even the scuba equipment being used.

"One day soon, there will be a fatal incident," said one. "To describe their behavior underwater as careless is to understate the case. They are downright dangerous. Poor diving safety coupled with a loaded spear gun with other divers in the water unaware of them spells disaster. Their effect on the reefs comes from criminal negligence, arrogance or an astounding lack of education about the environment they are operating in."

Arab News has underwater video footage of spear-fishermen with tanks and their catch on a reef in the process of hunting. It records one of many incidents that are degrading the local marine environment.

While the hunting of a selected fish for sport may seem harmless, the long-term effect is devastating. The domino effect of removing even a single fish from the very delicately balanced reef ecosystem can easily result in a whole breed disappearing from the reef. Regular spear-fishing magnifies the effect.

Spear fishermen usually select the biggest fish they can find, often the breeders. Removing them stops them from reproducing. This deprives hundreds of other predatory fish of food and prevents continuity of the breeding species. They in turn do not survive or do not reproduce. The local population dies out, and with it human food and a valuable tourist resource.

Frequently, a boat with hunters and a boat with sport-divers occupy the same reef. "It is only a matter of time before someone spears a diver by mistake with possibly fatal results," said David Kirk, experienced dive instructor and manager at Al-Nakheel beach north of Abhur, which runs a strictly enforced conservation policy. "Moreover, I have seen over the last five or so years the effect that even free-divers (those without scuba equipment) can have on the reef system here. We ban them as a matter of course and immediately hand over any offenders to the Coast Guard."

In a recent interview, Prince Sultan ibn Salman, secretary general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism, acknowledged that spear fishing was, in the scheme of building a national tourist industry, fairly low on the list of priorities. But he asked that along with other hazards threatening the environment as related to tourism it be checked and reported on.

SOURCE – CDNN & Arab News

Cliff Etzel
Cliff Etzel
Cliff is the former Freediving editor of He is now a freelance journalist and film-maker.