Hope in the Ocean

The coral reefs in the Mal­dives are on the brink of ex­tinc­tion and, if not ad­e­quately pro­tected, the un­der­wa­ter won­ders may just dis­ap­pear.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sarah Fahim The writer is an as­sis­tant edi­tor at Southasia.

‘Par­adise on earth.’ This is a phrase that fits the com­mu­nity of 1200 is­lands, out of which only 200 are in­hab­ited by the hu­man race. The Mal­dives is known for its marine rich­ness and scenery. Its sur­face area makes up for only 1% land. Wit­ness­ing the most ex­treme ef­fects of global warm­ing and cli­mate change, it lies only 1m above sea level. Tourism, fol­lowed by the fish­ing in­dus­try, con­sti­tutes more than 30% of the Mal­dives’ GDP.

In the di­verse marine world, coral reefs in the Mal­dives pull tourist at­ten­tion the most. Swim­ming along, the manta rays and sport fish­ing also draw the for­eign­ers and add to the exquisite­ness of the is­lands. How­ever, global warm­ing is a deadly phe­nom­e­non for the un­der­wa­ter pop­u­la­tion of coral reefs. Ac­cord­ing to the World Re­sources In­sti­tute, more than 75% of coral reefs around the globe are en­dan­gered. The Mal­dives face se­vere changes in the un­der­wa­ter tem­per­a­ture as a re­sult of global warm­ing. If this fluc­tu­a­tion in sea­wa­ter heat is pro­longed, the re­sult will not be mere ad­verse ef­fect on the marine or­gan­isms but as a cor­re­spond­ing con­se­quence, coral reefs could reach the edge of ex­tinc­tion.

Pri­mar­ily, the threats to coral reefs in the Mal­dives are twofold. Acid­i­fi­ca­tion of sea­wa­ter and, se­condly, the wa­ter sim­ply get­ting too warm. Once the un­der­wa­ter tem­per­a­ture rises, al­gae that give color to th­ese reefs are likely to be killed and if the rise in tem­per­a­ture pro­longs, bleach­ing is a nat­u­ral cause. This is pre­cisely why the gov­ern­ment and in­de­pen­dent na­ture con­ser­va­tion bod­ies are tak­ing mea­sures and de­vis­ing strate­gies to pro­tect them. Marine or­gan­isms find shel­ter in th­ese reefs and, in the ab­sence of the reefs, marine life is bound to suf­fer.

Back in 1998, such an event could have been per­ilous for the coral reefs al­most ir­re­vo­ca­bly. More than 95% of coral reefs in the Mal­dives were se­verely dam­aged when the sea tem­per­a­ture rose above ninety de­grees

centi­grade and the tem­per­a­ture pro­longed in du­ra­tion. The coral reefs were bleached, de­te­ri­o­rat­ing a di­verse marine ecosys­tem and home to marine or­gan­isms which have be­come very rare species. This oc­cur­rence is named El Nino and it was af­ter this event, that the protective mea­sures picked up pace to pre­serve the reefs and re­store life.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions and pro­cesses for reef checks were formed in the 1980s. Now reef checks have been handed over to the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. Divers are trained on how to un­der­take the scru­ti­niz­ing pro­cesses and are en­cour­aged to keep a check on the Mal­dives’ Ve­las­saru reefs, en­hanc­ing ef­fi­ciency of check­ing the health of the coral reefs. The ini­tia­tive was taken in this re­gard by the Bio­sphere Ex­pe­di­tion in Jan­uary 2015. The coral reefs are not only pro­vid­ing shel­ter to marine life glob­ally, but also pro­tect the hu­man habi­ta­tion from wave cur­rents as they break their pace.

The In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture, along with a travel in­dus­try ser­vice, has trained 40 marine bi­ol­o­gists and dive guides for coral reef pro­tec­tion. Five mon­i­tor­ing pro­to­cols namely Coral Point Count, Fish Land­ings, Shark­Watch, BleachWatch and FishWatch have also been im­ple­mented. Three reef man­age­ment plans de­vis­ing legal obligations and healthy fish­ing prac­tices were also for­mu­lated. Ever since 2008, this col­lab­o­ra­tion has been tak­ing steps and im­ple­ment­ing pro­ce­dures to se­cure coral reefs in the Mal­dives and in a few other coun­tries.

In 2010, an­other bleach­ing took place in the Mal­dives due to in­creased sea­wa­ter tem­per­a­ture. Global warm­ing took its toll and the sea­wa­ter re­mained warm for a pe­riod that ex­ceeded the im­mu­nity level of the coral reefs against acid­i­fi­ca­tion. A UK-based con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion named Marine Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety col­lab­o­rated with the Mal­dives Marine Re­search Cen­tre to con­duct a study about how many coral reefs had been re­cov­ered and the progress of fur­ther bet­ter­ment.

By Septem­ber 2012, the col­lab­o­ra­tive study re­vealed that 60% of live corals had re­cov­ered and had been pop­u­lated again af­ter the 1998 bleach­ing in­ci­dence. There is now only a cer­tain amount of acid­i­fi­ca­tion that the reefs are im­mune to. Global warm­ing is un­stop­pably adding to the acidic con­tent un­der­wa­ter and this, in turn, af­fects the coral reefs quite ad­versely. With­out ef­fec­tive, con­tin­u­ous and or­gan­ised preser­va­tion, the is­lands might see a time when coral reefs may no longer ex­ist in this heaven on earth.

Ac­cord­ing to the Great Bar­rier Reef (are you re­fer­ring to some or­ga­ni­za­tion?), coral cover has been de­creas­ing by 50% glob­ally over the last 27 years. The av­er­age sea tem­per­a­ture at present is 29 de­grees centi­grade, which it­self is harm­ful to coral ex­is­tence. Should the tem­per­a­ture reach 30 de­grees centi­grade for any length of time, there is a high prob­a­bil­ity of yet an­other bleach­ing episode.

Baa Atoll com­prises 463 miles of the In­dian Ocean and lies within the Mal­dives. It is named a UNESCO Bio­sphere Re­serve. It has a shal­low seafloor and is 86 de­grees Fahren­heit warm. The tem­per­a­ture has al­ready bleached 10-15% of the coral reefs in the shal­low parts of Baa Atoll, whereas 50-70% of the coral reefs there have be­gun to pale. This was the sit­u­a­tion in 2010. Fund­ing for the Cen­tre of Baa Atoll comes from 6 re­sorts in the area and the gov­ern­ment. This amount is in­vested for pre­serv­ing the harmed and en­dan­gered coral reefs. Ever since 2012, for­mu­lated by the man­age­ment of the Bio­sphere Ex­pe­di­tion, tourists have to pay a cer­tain amount if they wish to take a swim along the manta rays or do sport fish­ing. Nine ar­eas have been de­clared as no fish­ing zones.

The Marine Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety also col­lab­o­rated with the Mal­dives Marine Re­search Cen­tre for a 4 year pro­gram that lasted from 2009 to 2013. The project was called Man­ag­ing Coral Reef Fish­eries for Bio­di­ver­sity, Ecosys­tem and Eco­nomic Ben­e­fit or the Dar­win Reef Fish Project. It was funded by the Dar­win Ini­tia­tive (DE­FRA, UK) and was also sup­ported by the Min­istry of Fish­eries, Agri­cul­ture and Marine Re­sources of the Mal­dives. Ad­di­tion­ally, two more projects have been ini­ti­ated and Whale Shark and Manta Ray Con­ser­va­tion is one of them. Project RE­GEN­ER­ATE is the sec­ond, also known as the Reef Gen­er­ate En­vi­ron­men­tal and Eco­nomic Re­silience for Atoll Ecosys­tems.

The gov­ern­ment of the Mal­dives must en­cour­age such ven­tures and projects. If ig­nored and ren­dered help­less, coral reefs will be vic­tim­ized by ef­fects of global warm­ing and acid­i­fi­ca­tion in no time, mak­ing them van­ish al­to­gether due to ex­ten­sive bleach­ing and high sea tem­per­a­ture con­di­tions.

The av­er­age sea tem­per­a­ture at present is 29 de­grees centi­grade, which it­self is harm­ful to coral ex­is­tence.

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