Overfishing and Poaching are threatening Sea Turtles in "Khor Omaira South Yemen

  January 4, 2023

All photos in this report are by Fathi Saweed

This report was translated from Arabic to English by Amira Yahia

At night and without government or public oversight, some thieves and fishermen set up hidden traps to catch rare sea turtles in the "Khor Omaira" reserve of the Lahj governorate, South Yemen, near the port of Mokha and overlooking the Bab al-Mandab Strait.


The remains of these turtles demonstrate the ugliness of hunting by some thieves who were content with taking some parts and leaving others without even benefiting from their meat, while circulating information, that, despite its strangeness, demonstrates that these poachers target specific organs that may be included in the composition of sexual stimulants.


What happens in the country's southern marine reserve is a scenario that happens almost every day, and the residents of the reserve know these dangerous workers who are involved in this hunting, with no means to protect endangered species and no official intervention thus far.


Numerous scientific studies and research, as well as reports from field visits by specialists from the Public Authority for Environmental Protection, indicate that four species of sea turtles (Dec2020-EPA) in this coastal nature reserve in Lahj Governorate are at risk of extinction due to overfishing and brutal hunting by fishermen and residents of the coastal area to the west, about 100 kilometers from Aden.


Over several months, environmental activist and Fishermen's Association member "Fathi Sweed" documented and published numerous pictures and videos of the brutal poaching of sea turtles in the "Khor Omaira" reserve, noting that the thieves have been practicing their crimes brutally for a year, with close to a thousand turtles slaughtered. He emphasized the importance of addressing such crimes by forming a special association for the protection of turtles and marine life, as well as coordinating with security authorities to play their role in combating the ongoing encroachments.


Overfishing of turtles in a number of countries around the world, according to a conference on global wildlife last November, threatens hundreds of species of these domestic animals. Overfishing of turtles to meet increasing demand, according to the British newspaper "The Guardian," has put more than 150 turtle species at risk of extinction.


According to Engineer Fathi al-Sa'u, the head of the Public Authority for Environmental Protection's branch in Lahj governorate, hunting turtles is an old tradition that has increased in abundance due to a lack of fish in the region and the end of the catching season, which coincides with the migration of these turtles to "Khor Omaira," making it an easy target.


"It turned out that the Africans learned how to hunt turtles before teaching the people in the area how to do it. ""When they stopped after sending a report to the High Commissioner from the Public Authority for Environmental Protection, the process became limited to those residents because they didn't know about it and there was no security control," he said.


The head of the General Authority for Environmental Protection's branch in "Lahj" confirms that they closely monitor the targeting of male turtles to extract their sexual organs and promote the idea that they are a cure for impotence in men, despite the fact that this claim has not been scientifically proven, revealing the professionalism of the region's fishermen in distinguishing between males and females of these creatures, while they sometimes sell their meat.


Concerning the lack of real interaction on the part of the local authorities in the governorate of "Lahj" to change the current situation and stop the poaching of turtles in "Khor Omaira," Al-Sa'ou says: "The General Authority for Environmental Protection, Lahj branch, made all possible efforts to stop the attacks on sea turtles by sending a lot of letters and notes, as well as reports to all responsible and competent authorities."


The governor issued orders prohibiting the hunting or trading of sea turtles, and the authority focused on public awareness campaigns because its role is limited to being a supervisory, advisory, and monitoring body rather than an executive security body. However, the problem persists due to the spread of poverty and the deterioration of societal living conditions and services.


Concerning the urgent solutions and remedies to stop sea turtle overfishing in "Khor Omaira," and how the area can be permanently protected as a reserve that does not expose it to future destruction, "Al-Sa'u" emphasizes the importance of raising awareness among all segments of the local community, making them aware of their responsibility towards the reserve, applying laws and the reward and punishment principle, and providing job opportunities for the region's youth.


According to "Al-Sa'o," the Public Authority for Environmental Protection wants to include the "Khor Omaira" reserve in the global list of natural reserves, and it was listed locally as a coastal nature reserve by the Prime Minister's decision on October 10, 2021, because of its environmental sensitivity, morphological formations, and geological developments that attracted much biodiversity, the most important of which is sea turtles.


Declaring the area a nature reserve was an important step in avoiding the threat to turtles, especially because the area was once teeming with various types of sea turtles that are now rare or nonexistent, with the Holothuriidae being the most important of these species, according to researchers and environmental protection officials.


The "Khor Omaira" area is located on the Gulf of Aden's northwestern shore, at the meeting point of two water currents, the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden water currents, and a Red Sea warm water current. Water currents mix close to the region's shores, aiding in the adaptation of some biological species to the region. The "Lahj" region is administratively affiliated with the "Mudaraba and Ras Al-Ara" directorate, and its borders extend from the "Mazkha" valley in the east to "Ras Al-Ara" in the west, totaling 574.45 square kilometers.


Because it is the mouth of many valleys flowing from the hills and mountains of the north, the reserve contains all types of beaches, including sandy, muddy, and rocky, and it is unique in having a nautical tongue that works to break the waves and protect the area from the process of erosion and spray that leads to beach erosion. Each zone in the reserve is distinguished by a number of factors. According to environmental protection studies, the reserve is divided into three zones based on their sensitivity, with the core zone covering 72.73 km2, the buffer zone covering 115.95 km2, and the utility zone covering 332.77 km2.


The nutritional and physical characteristics of the sea turtles in the "Al-Lahjiya" reserve vary. Some consume seaweed and algae, while others consume terrapins and jellyfish, as well as large zooplankton such as shrimp and young squid. Sea turtles have considered it a stable feeding and nesting area due to the abundance of nutrients. Turtles of the same species that come from far-off coasts have been drawn to the area.


According to studies and research conducted by the Public Authority for Environmental Protection, the "Khor Omaira" reserve is home to four species of sea turtles: the green turtle "Chelonia magdes," the hawksbill turtle "Eretmochelys imbricata," the large-headed turtle "Caretta," and the olive turtle "Lepidochelys olivacea."


"Hawksbill turtles restrain jellyfish, while leatherback turtles restrain sponges. Green sea turtles eat seaweed, which must be kept short in order for many fish species to breed in it, "according to the website SHAREAMERICA


Green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles were both listed as endangered or critically endangered on the non-profit International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List of Endangered Species" in 2008. The loggerhead sea turtle is also threatened with extinction.


Green turtles are the most common sea turtle species found in the reserve because they swim there all year. In the spring, their numbers decrease because some of them return to their original areas for breeding and then return after the breeding season is over. This species feeds on the seaweeds that are available in the area.


The presence of the second species, "hawksbill turtles," though in smaller numbers than the green turtles, distinguishes the reserve. During the summer, their presence is most noticeable. This is because there are many jellyfish and stingers (cnidaria) that feed on them.


While the largest turtles live in deep water, they come to the shallow areas (coastal) to feed on seaweed and some animal plankton. This type of turtle is rarely seen in the reserve because it frequents shallow waters at certain times of the year in search of grass and seafood. They used the region as their food path and migrated across the seas before returning to the open sea.


The fourth type, the "olive turtle," is the smallest type of sea turtle and prefers warm, shallow waters. Because this turtle is a picky eater, it seeks out specific types of seaweed, contributing to its scarcity in the reserve.


Khor Omaira is also a popular spot for marine life. Because this region contained a variety of seaweeds and corals, the region was divided into three zones based on the availability of food, which is the first base of the food pyramid for marine life, which is plankton and phytoplankton, as well as the central weeds (core zone). The third ecological zone provides food for sea turtles, but it is not as abundant as in the first zone; additionally, the region provides shelter for turtles and many fish.


According to some researchers' reports, sea turtles, particularly green and hawksbill turtles, prefer warm, sandy beaches to lay their eggs, and according to the testimonies of the reserve's residents, the al-Sadaf area is one of the areas of a distinctive nature for laying its eggs because it is a remote area, and the beaches of "Khor Omaira" are considered one of the distinguished sites at the national, regional, and even global levels because of their environmental importance.


Sea turtles of various types, as well as many types of plants, coral reefs, and animals, are considered a true treasure for the national economy, which abounds in a large number of natural reserves, in which plant and animal life vary, but this diversity has become threatened with extinction, in addition to facing many challenges, the most serious of which is the human factor, which does not hesitate to practice practices that endanger these animals and plants in their environment.


According to Dr. Jacqueline Mansour Al-Batani, Head of the Roaa Center for Strategic Studies, Consultations, and Training, "Khor Omaira" is a green turtle breeding and feeding area that is constantly subjected to brutal and unfair hunting due to its proximity to an African refugee camp where people eat turtle meat. She added that if the relevant authorities do not take firm action against these violations and their perpetrators, attrition will continue.


Al-Battani proposed immediate solutions to the systematic destruction and brutal hunting of turtles, such as going to the sites where violations occur and establishing security patrols to arrest the fishermen and refer them to the Public Prosecution Office to enforce the law. She also stated that she is aware of the existence of fines and penalties ranging from imprisonment to fines, but she has not heard of them being used, and that if they are not used, fishermen will continue to tamper with the marine environment and wildlife, causing an environmental imbalance on the southern coasts.


According to researchers and environmental protection officials, the "Khor Omaira" reserve lacks an integrated management mechanism for marine natural resources, particularly in terms of monitoring and evaluation processes. As a result of the limited role of fish cooperatives, resources are exploited almost arbitrarily, necessitating work toward developing a clear management mechanism to preserve, protect, and sustain these resources. Aside from overexploitation of certain marine species, such as turtles and Holothuriidae, and destruction of the marine environment, particularly coral reefs and natural pastures for marine species, there is a lack of or limited public awareness of marine environmental safety and protection, as well as the protection of endangered species, such as sea turtles.


Environmental activists in "Lahj" stress the importance of following local laws and legislation, the most important of which is the Environmental Protection Law No. 26 of 1995, as well as fulfilling the state's commitment to agreements and treaties concluded with international organizations such as the International Convention on Biological Diversity, the CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and the Reproductive Rights of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.


To halt the deterioration of the "Khor Omaira" reserve, a scientific team of environmental protection researchers who previously visited the reserve recommended that the area's environmental assessment studies be carried out through the study of marine and terrestrial biodiversity, as well as economic and social studies, while also working to complete the formation of the "Khor Omaira" environmental association. Creating channels of coordination between the Environment Agency, the Ministry of Fisheries, local councils, Khor Omaira security, fishermen's associations, and other associations and organizations, in addition to continuous monitoring of the environmental situation through periodic reports submitted from the region through the Environment Association and the Environmental Protection Authority in Lahj and submitted to the local leadership in Lahj governorate.


The "Khor Omaira" area is an important feeding site for several sea turtle species, all of which are listed as endangered on the tables of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are also listed in the regulations of the Convention, and these organisms are frequently attacked, especially during breeding seasons. It is also one of the most significant regionally registered sites as a major feeding site for sea turtles and other species, which necessitates an inventory of the types of sea turtles that feed in the region, as well as scientific documentation, because the region thrives on coral reefs, which must be preserved and listed among the objects included in the national directory of endangered species of animals and plants and is distinguished by providing feeding habitats.



Bassam Al-Qadi 

Bassam is a scientific researcher and journalist covering climate and environmental issues.