Urgent measures including banning fishing nets that trap them and setting up marine reserves are vital for their survival, the U.N. Environment Program said.
"Man-made threats pose the greatest risk to the gentle sea cow," a U.N.-backed forum concluded after a meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, of governments, international and non-governmental organizations on the fate of the seemingly clumsy animal, the world's only herbivorous mammal living in marine waters.
"Illegal poaching, unsustainable hunting by local communities, severe injuries from ships and vanishing sea-grass beds are accelerating a critical loss of habitat and threatening populations," it said.
Enhanced regional cooperation among countries hosting dugongs is essential to ensure the survival of the creature that sailors once took for a mermaid when spotted from afar, it added.
A 2008 assessment found the dugong is now extinct in the Maldives, Mauritius and Taiwan, and declining in other waters in at least a third of the areas where it is found.