Corals in Astola Island bristle with marine life

Posted on 15 December 2020

Karachi, December 15: To assess the environmental conditions of Astola Island, a team of PADI Certified Indus Scuba divers undertook a four-day expedition from 3 to 6 December 2020 to the area. The divers found amazing wildlife and revealed that a very healthy and productive marine ecosystem exists around the island. It was feared that because of the abundant corals found in the area, and the recent reporting of coral bleaching near Churna Island, Astola Island may also be at risk. However, the divers confirmed that no coral bleaching was found on Astola Island, a marine protected area (MPA).
The divers undertook surveys at important diving sites along Astola Island. Coral and associated habitats were observed to be teeming with marine life including important fishes, such as barracuda, trevallies, hot-lips as well lobsters, fan-worm, sea urchins and soft corals. The team also dived to a ship wreck located about 4 km off Astola Island, which was also observed to have rich marine life.
The scuba team lead by S.H. Momin Zaidi also observed a number of green turtles nesting and laying eggs on the island’s beaches and observed juvenile turtles hatching and returning to the sea. WWF-Pakistan appreciated the efforts of the Indus scuba team in reporting this positive news about the healthy ecosystem of Astola Island.
Commenting on the report, Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Advisor (Marine Fisheries), WWF-Pakistan said that Astola Island is the first Marine Protected Area (MPA) of the country. He informed that it is known to be rich in marine biodiversity and have a healthy ecosystem. It was once the largest nesting ground of the great crested tern (Thalasseus bergii) globally, however, due to the introduction of feral cats and rats, nesting colonies have dwindled in the past few decades. Astola Island is also an important nesting area of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and is considered an important fishing ground for fishermen of Pasni and other coastal areas in Balochistan. Khan further added that the report of no coral bleaching near Astola Island is a sigh of relief as the widespread phenomenon may seriously affect coral and associated marine life. ‘In contrast to Churna Island, the existence of healthy coral habitats near Astola Island is due to negligible industrial activities in the vicinity of the Astola Island,’ he added. This can also partially be attributed to the declaration of the island as an MPA in June 2017. This declaration aimed to help conserve biodiversity of the area, ban illegal fishing and regulate sustainable recreational activities.
According to the studies carried out by WWF-Pakistan, Astola Island is a hotspot of biodiversity. WWF-Pakistan is first national organization that started assessment of biological potential of Astola Island in 1995. Since then a number of expeditions have been sent to this Island by the organization which revealed presence of diverse terrestrial flora and fauna. Astola is home to an endemic saw scale viper (Echis sochureki astolae), carpet viper and cliff racer. This is in addition to 9 species of sea snakes which inhabit the subtidal habitats around the Island. The island is reported to be inhabited by two agama lizards namely skink and long tailed dessert lizard. The Island is known for a well-diversified bird fauna consisting of 19 terrestrial and 87 aquatic birds occurring on the Island. WWF-Pakistan reported 82 species of terrestrial plants from there. This island harbours rich marine animals including 23 species of hard coral and a number of soft corals. Moreover, about 156 species of associated fishes are found in coral habitat including a large number of invertebrates. Astola Island is also rich in commercially important fish and shellfish species which a source of livelihood for coastal communities of the area. The Arabian humpback whale, which is considered to be one of the rarest marine mammals, is also occasionally reported from the surrounding area. The protected, threatened and endangered species such as crustaceans, sharks, whales, whale sharks, guitarfish and mobulids have been reported from the Island.
Coral habitats harbour the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem globally and directly support over 500 million people worldwide, mostly in poor countries.  Corals are among the most threatened ecosystems on Earth, largely due to unprecedented global warming and climate changes, combined with growing local pressures. In order to ensure long-lasting protection of Astola Island and the conservation of its unique habitat, WWF calls for the development of a management plan for the island as a Marine Protected Area to ensure protection of coral, marine and terrestrial life of around the island. The organization also calls on the government to declare Churna Island the country’s second MPA in order to conserve its habitat.
A view of Astola Island
© WWF-Pakistan