Astola is Pakistan's largest offshore island. © IUCN Pakistan
Located nearly 25 km off the coast of Balochistan province, Astola is Pakistan’s largest offshore island. Also known as “Jezira Haft Talar” (Island of the Seven Hills) due to the small, rocky mountains that span the 6.7 km2 island. This pristine island with sandy beaches, crystal waters, and a remarkable biodiversity has all the traits of a tourist destination. The Astola saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus astolae) is endemic to this island and its beaches are a nesting ground for the endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbracata). A variety of coral species are found in the surrounding waters along with the Arabian Sea Humpback Whale and dolphins. In order to relieve pressure put on the island’s natural resources in recent years by human activities MFF Pakistan worked with its National Coordinating Body to have Astola declared Pakistan’s first Marine Protected Area in 2017.
To support the process of to establish Astola Island MPA, MFF Pakistan utilized the membership of its National Coordinating Body to undertake the necessary feasibility assessments, conduct consultations, and raise awareness about the importance of the area. Membership of the NCB includes several government agencies with an interest in marine and coastal resources, the private sector, and civil society organisations. This unique ‘soft governance’ platform facilitated cross sectoral dialogues and advocacy that enabled the declaration of the MPA more quickly than would have otherwise been possible.
Several previous attempts to establish MPAs in Pakistan had not succeed due to the lack of a systematic approach and engagement of all relevant stakeholders. In this case the MFF NCB proved to be an invaluable asset, providing an inclusive platform the NCB could engage with all the key stakeholders, including the Ministry of Defense and Navy, to develop wider consensus among all involved for the establishment of MPAs in Pakistan.
As part of the process to establish the MPA, an ecological and resource use baseline of Astola Island was conducted providing first-hand information on the importance and use of biodiversity resources. These surveys engaged several government agencies and academics from research institutions thereby building awareness of the importance of the areas. The synthesis of these surveys filled an important knowledge gap for decision makers and provided further impetus for the MPA declaration. This information will also support informed management planning for the area.
A video documentary showcasing the natural heritage and biodiversity on the island, as we as threats due to increasing human activity, served to support dialogues with decision makers and was a valuable tool in raising awareness.
Collaboration between both government agencies, non-government organisation and academic institutions provided an appropriate combination of expertise to conduct the surveys and convey the results to decision makers in multiple formats. The MFF NCB also provided a suitable platform with which to convene all parties and disseminate findings across government agencies.
Although the surveys provided adequate information for the declaration of Astola Island MPA, further studies are needed to inform detailed management planning. In particular, studies are needed to better understand the dynamics of wildlife populations both on the island and in the surrounding waters. Furthermore, comprehensive studies of commercial and small scale fishing practices in the vicinity of the island are needed to better regulate fisheries for sustainability.
The process of establishing the Pakistan’s first MPA has led to a number of valuable lessons being learned, mainly regarding how stakeholders from various sectors (federal and provincial governments, civil society and academia) can collectively work towards pushing through policies for environmental conservation. Pakistan also has a large coastline, and this process can now be replicated for other sites which are rich in biodiversity. Some other potential MPA sites have already been identified, including Churna Island, Miani Hor, and Gwatar Bay. Through regular meetings of the MFF NCB and other regional gatherings Pakistan continues to share its experience establishing Astola Island MPA and vision to establish additional areas.
Strong interest from policy-makers, IUCN Members and civil society to replicate the process to establish Astola Island MPA.
Continuation of the MFF NCB is necessary as a platform for coordinating actions to achieve sustainable coastal resources management in Pakistan.
Using the convening power of the MFF NCB, and its multi-stakeholder membership, provided a cross sectoral platform to undertake the necessary processes to establish the MPA. Baseline surveys provided decision makers with the information they needed to consider the importance of the area. Continued advocacy and the development of awareness raising materials helped to raise the profile of Astola Island. These factors combined ultimately led to the successful designation of the Astola MPA. The next step is to build on the lessons learned throughout the process in order to develop a comprehensive management plan for the area, and continue to seek the establishment of other MPAs to protect and conserve Pakistan’s diverse and rich coastal and marine natural heritage.
Astola Island has all the hallmarks of a nature tourism getaway – sandy beaches, crystal waters, and rich biodiversity tucked away in remote and pristine corners of the world.
However, despite its remoteness, Astola faces a number of issues. Fish stocks are gradually being depleted by large commercial trawlers operating in the area. Feral cats, introduced by fishermen during their brief stopovers to the island, now pose a threat to wildlife the reside on the islands and many bird nesting grounds. Abandoned fishing gear, or ghost nets, are clogging the islands shallow waters and beaches, disrupting turtle nesting areas and choking corals.
Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) under its Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 have committed to declare at least 10% of their coastal and marine areas as protected.
In 2015, the National Coordinating Body (NCB) of Mangroves for the Future (MFF) Pakistan, headed by the Ministry of Climate Change, Government of Pakistan constituted a Working Group which recommended four potential sites, including Astola Island, as Marine Protected Areas (MPA) for consideration to address Pakistan’s commitment under international conventions. Subsequently, a motion calling for the declaration of Astola Island as an MPA was adopted at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2016.
With the continued commitment of the Government of Pakistan, and with assistance from MFF, Astola Island was declared Pakistan’s first Marine Protected Area on 15 June 2017. MFF Pakistan has since developed an ecological baseline and video documentary which will contribute to raising awareness and development of a management plan for Astola Island MPA.
Coral reef, Astola Island MPA, Astola Island MPA, Pakistan © Abdul Raheem Gwadar / MFF Pakistan