Marine biologist Chou Loke Ming tells Hong Xinyi about Singapore’s resilient coral reefs and how to protect this marine legacy
Marine biologist Chou Loke Ming on protecting Singapore’s coral reefs
Chou loke ming took up snorkelling in the 1970s when he was studying zoology at the then University of Singapore. Back then, coral reefs could still be found along the original coastline of mainland Singapore, and more reefs fringed the offshore islands. “The water was clear, and the reefs were really astounding,” the marine biologist reminisces. “I was fascinated by the many interesting and colourful species.” Spurred by this fascination, he started what is now known as the Reef Ecology Lab at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and spent his academic career researching coral reef ecology and advocating for the protection of Southeast Asia’s marine biodiversity. Now an adjunct research professor at the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, Loke Ming is the subject of a new children’s book under the Asian Scientist Junior series that spotlights outstanding scientists from Asia. Perseverance is a key theme of Loke Ming’s story. By the 1980s, sedimentation—the erosion of soil particles used in land reclamation—had started to cloud the clear waters of his youth. Sedimentation smothers and stresses the corals, thereby also threatening the health of the marine species that inhabit the reefs. For lovers of the life aquatic like Loke Ming, it was time to take action. In 1987, he teamed up with Francis Lee, then commodore of the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club, and Khoo Soo Seng, then president of the Singapore Underwater Federation, to launch an assessment of Singapore’s coral reefs. “Francis had the boats, Soo Seng had the divers, and I was the president of the Singapore Institute of Biology then, so we had the scientists,” he explains. They surveyed 41 coral reefs, and put up a proposal to the government for reef conservation. Sadly at the time, there was no government agency dedicated to handling marine biodiversity and this proposal was not taken up. It would take more than two decades before a 2009 proposal—spearheaded by non-governmental organisations such as the Nature Society, and academics including Loke Ming—resulted in real change. The National Parks Board (Nparks) had by then added marine biodiversity to its portfolio, and led a five-year Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey. It found that Singapore’s waters were home to over 100 species new to science, and also rediscovered 10 species thought to have gone locally extinct. In 2014, Nparks launched Singapore’s first marine park around Sisters’ Islands, St John’s Island and Pulau Tekukor, where rare species of seahorses, clams and sponges live among coral reefs. Ask this grandfather of two boys how to encourage younger generations to cherish Singapore’s marine heritage and he suggests making sure that students understand the importance of sustainable development from a young age. Moreover, none of the universities here offer marine biology as an undergraduate discipline, something he believes should change. After all, there are no lack of problems to dive into. Singapore’s southern waterfront is slated for redevelopment, a prime opportunity to design better shoreline structures. “Curved walls can trap water during high tide, and act as tidal pools that can support more marine biodiversity,” he suggests. “We won’t get our old beaches back, but we can still enhance marine life.” And he is hopeful that those clear waters of his youth may return some day, if a new generation of scientists grapple with the sedimentation problem. Here’s some motivation: “The reef we see today is not what I saw in the 1970s; the species composition has changed, and the physical conditions have changed. But there are still more than 200 coral species in our waters, which is about a third of the species in Southeast Asia. If the water clarity improves, the colours of the corals will stand out again.” In other words, there are still treasures beneath our feet. Singapore has lost 65 per cent of its coral reefs since 1986, in large part due to land reclamation. But what is left is living proof of remarkable resilience.