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Internship at the Red Sea Environmental Centre in Dahab, Egypt

Johann Stiepani, a student from the University of Bayreuth doing his Master of Science in Global Change Ecology. From April 23 to May 16, 2017 he did an internship at an Austrian non-government organization based in Dahab, Egypt named Red Sea Environmental Centre. During his 9-week stay with the Red Sea Environmental Centre (RSEC) Johann Stiepani worked as project leader for the conservation project in the Masbat Bay – the main bay in Dahab.

Foto: Johann Stiepani

Foto: Johann Stiepani

Lectures and fieldwork

The experience with RSEC was a mesh of lectures and fieldwork. The first few lectures were on the geomorphology and formation of the Red Sea, which happened during the Eocene over forty million years ago. Lectures explained abiotic factors that led to the evolution of endemic species. These unique abiotic factors include high salinity, high sea surface temperatures, and limited connectivity to the Indian Ocean.

About the project

RSEC is located on the Gulf of Aqaba - a large gulf at the northern tip of the Red Sea. This Gulf has a maximum depth of 1,800 meters, one of the deepest portions of the Red Sea. The project monitored and evaluated the current state of the marine ecosystems in the Masbat Bay. Monitoring was done by using an advanced form of the Reef Check survey with added indicator organism for the Red Sea. The surveying technique used a line point intercept method. Transects for the assessment were chosen using coordinates from previous monitoring endeavors.

The Masbat Bay Conservation project has been ongoing for the past ten years with biyearly assessments with a few breaks during the time of the revolution in Egypt. The project scientist is a Norwegian who has been working for RSEC since the inception of the project ten years ago. The resident marine biologists, members from Reef Checks, and previous scientist from RSEC created this specialized survey technic with the hopes of creating a long term monitoring project that will bring understanding to the effects of climate change, anthropogenic impacts, and natural environmental processes to biota of the Red Sea.

Installed transects were used to run surveys for fish visual census, invertebrates, coral damage, and substrate. The first survey was to observe and record fish species using a fish census survey that only included indicator fish species. The majority of the fish monitored are the economically important fish species or families including Parrotfishes (Scaridai), Sweetlips (Haemulidae), Empeors (Lethrinidae), Broomtail wrasse (Chellinus lunulatus), and Black snapper (Macolor niger). Among several species that are not economically valuable but ecologically relevant are Bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) and moray eel (Muraenidae).

The second survey assesses invertebrates and trash, which included tires from cars, various plastics, and fishing gear attached to the coral. Invertebrates were harder to identify than the trash because many invertebrates are quite small and able to hide under rocks and in the braches of the coral. Finding invertebrates was challenging yet rewarding because many invertebrates are quite colorful and unique like the nudibranches, sea urchins, sea slugs, banded coral shrimps, and the pajama slug.

The third survey was the substrate survey, the most intensive survey since there are over 40 different substrate types. A plump line is dropped every meter on the transect line. The substrate that plump lines land on will then be recorded. The fourth and last survey is the coral damage survey. The Coral damage survey included diseases that impact the coral (White pox disease or Dark spot diseases), coral breakage (abrasion or clear cuts) and coral bleaching.

Survey findings were entered into the computer for statistical analysis, which revealed interesting results for the state of bay. For instance, algae blooms are one of the Masbat Conservation Project findings. The biyearly assessment can explain seasonal variation of algae. The visual census could indicate if algae eating fish species are missing or declining in number. Reduced herbivore from certain fish could be an explanation for increases of algae. Elevated nutrient levels could be the cause for an algae bloom in the Masbat Bay of Dahab. All in all, the Masbat Conservation Project findings can assist local management and reduce human impact on the Red Sea.

During his internship fifty project dives were completed. The field work was quite intensive. Weekends were also dedicated to work especially when the sea was calm which made it easier for diving.

After all, Dahab is the world's most north tropical sea with over 1,200 fish and over 170 endemic species including the Masked Butterfly fish (Chaetodon semilarvatus) and the Picasso Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus Aculeatus). This was an excellent professional development opportunity that has forever connected Johann Stiepani to the Red Sea, its inhabitants , and the local marine concerns.

Text: Johann Stiepani

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