Success Story Radhouane Ben-Hamadou
Radhouan Ben-Hamadou (PhD and Env. Eng.), Associate Professor of Marine Sciences and Lead of the Marine Conservation and Restoration Research Group at Qatar University and ecohydrologist and oceanographer, speaks about his QNRF-funded R&D projects that aim to understand the ecological functioning of offshore oil and gas platforms, their connectivity with natural reefs and their contribution to support local productivity, fisheries and regional biodiversity.
Qatar’s marine environment, like the world’s ocean, is subjected to a variety of natural and man-made pressures, including climate change, pollution and overexploitation of resources and habitats.
Our conviction is that the marine environment has reached a tipping point: self-recovery is unlikely to happen, so humans need to actively aid in the recovery of lost/degraded ecosystems and their functions through tested and established services and recommendations. Essentially, we are working towards the active restoration of marine environments that have been degraded and the conservation/protection of those that are still functioning well.
The research we are conducting at the Marine Restoration and Conservation (MARESCO) Research Group at Qatar University focuses on a combination of sciences encompassing marine ecology, biology, and resource management. We endeavour to have a comprehensive understanding of the functions – and dysfunctions – of the marine environment and its ecosystems in order to identify priorities for conservation on one hand, and the underlying causes of the observed impacts, if any, on the other.
This will allow us to formulate the necessary actions to recover a healthy environment status, mitigate the impacts or compensate for the losses. It is a kind of diagnosing “environmental” health problems to prescribe the adequate remedies.
Since 2014 to date, and as a result of various QNRF-funded projects, we have a comprehensive assessment of the status of the coral reefs existing in Qatar’s marine environment.
In the framework of NPRP projects (EBM Coral and Seagrass, 8th cycle; RESTORE, 10th cycle), we visited all of the known natural reefs, and we discovered some new ones, but the most interesting findings actually came from an artificial reef: an oil platform (CoralConnect, 7th cycle). Compared to natural reefs, we found that a single oil platform in offshore oilfields holds the highest record of fish biodiversity in the whole Arabian Gulf and is home to what can be considered the richest habitat in the region. These massive man-made structures resting offshore at depths of 50 – 70m provide refuge, as well as feeding and breeding grounds, for a variety of species along the water column; an unparalleled situation when compared with a natural reef.
This outstanding biodiversity and productivity are protected de facto as well, as the access to the surroundings of the oil platforms is restricted to fisheries and recreational activities. This is a striking realization that this supposed threat to the marine environment is actually a tremendous opportunity for conservation and sustainability. A paradox indeed: the sustainability of our marine environment and resources are largely dependent upon the conservation of oil platforms! Our research suggests that their contribution is significant to the conservation of the offshore natural reefs, responsible for most of the seafood we fish locally in Qatar.
We also recently started a multi-year monitoring project of one of the world’s largest aggregations of the whale shark found feeding around the oil platforms of the AlShaheen oilfield. This further indicated that local productivity and wildlife are promoted and protected by these artificial structures.
Ultimately, this QNRF-funded research highlights the need for the combined restoration of degraded natural reefs and conservation of the biodiversity and productivity of artificial reefs as the way forward (RESTORE and QataREEF). It is also through research that we can explore new private sector development to address these challenges and inform government policy to enable resource sustainability.
For example, one technique is the restoration of coral reefs by producing and propagating coral fragments to populate degraded reefs (CoralReprod, 13th cycle). These findings and developed approaches towards restoration have been lauded by the regional and global scientific community, as the Arabian Gulf, including Qatar’s waters – the hottest sea of the world – is indicative of how other seas will look like within a few years/decades. Several global industrial stakeholders – TotalEnergies and SEABOOST – have partnered with us in order to collaboratively test their solutions to their own localized challenges because of the potential for application in similar environments.
The various QNRF grants we secured have been crucial to developing a significant set of research related to the sustainability of coral reefs, their conservation and restoration and how an apparent threat (oil & gas production) can be turned into an opportunity. In total, around 25 related research articles have been published. Our results and the knowledge gained have informed environmental decision-making in the local oil & gas industry and among our global industrial partners who sought to test their solutions in Qatar waters based on our research – a concrete demonstration that our conducted research does matter!
The marine environment has been always essential to the Qatar’s history: from the depths of the ocean where the pearls were sourced as a form of livelihood during its past to the offshore oil and gas exploration that have lead Qatar into its current prosperity.
Today, the conservation and the restoration of this rich, fascinating, but delicate environment , will define the State of Qatar’s commitment to achieving resource sustainability. Academia, government and industry should all sustain and expand the ongoing research and development projects, build upon successes and embrace the local capacities in order to attain sustainability of our marine environment, to secure a livable future.