May 29, 2016

Saving Malaysia’s Coral Reefs

Saving Malaysia’s Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are home to a stunning diversity of indigenous fish and other species. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even with the parlous state of wildlife preservation, it is rare to witness the slow but seemingly inexorable death of entire ecosystems in real time right before your eyes. Yet that’s what’s happening to the region’s coral reefs far and wide.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a wonder of the planet’s natural world, has experienced extensive bleaching this year as a result of prolonged high water temperatures. Thailand has similarly been experiencing a severe crisis in coral bleaching. So, too, has Malaysia, where government officials have just raised the alarm about the impending prospect of mass bleaching at many of its most popular dive sites.

Organisms often cover every square centimeter of corals. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Organisms often cover every square centimeter of corals. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At all these different locations the culprits for the ill health of reefs are the same: anthropogenic climate change and human-caused environmental stresses. In response, officials have been scrambling to try and save reefs from dying. Thailand has closed down 10 of its popular diving sites along the country’s coast and around a smattering of scenic islands in an effort to help damaged corals and their beleaguered ecosystems recover naturally by keeping away the swarms of tourists, many of whom often end up harming corals by touching them or stepping on them. Malaysia may soon follow suit by closing some of its own popular diving sites near stressed reefs.

Yet even such closures, which are bound to have economic impacts through a loss of tourism, may turn out to be mere stop-gap measures. “While some (reef) recovery will occur over time, the sad truth is that ongoing ocean warming may keep some reefs from ever recovering their previous level of health, diversity, and productivity,” Tom Di Liberto, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration in the US, has warned.

The reason is that water temperatures across the tropics are bound to increase in coming years and decades as a result of global warming, thereby triggering mass bleaching episodes at myriad reefs. For years corals from Malaysia to Thailand and all the way to Australia have been enduring plenty of environmental stress, to which they frequently respond by casting off the single-celled algae that give them their brilliant colors and live on them symbiotically by growing in their tissues and fueling their growth with energy through photosynthesis.

The limestone skeletons that corals lay down in intricate underwater forests with billowing branches and protective crannies, which serve as homes for numerous species, can survive less severe bleaching. In doing so, however, they become more exposed to the elements and therefore more vulnerable to the ravages of diseases, overfishing, pollution and mass tourism. In the longer term, rising temperatures and water acidification, both of them side-effects of anthropogenic climate change, will make it increasingly harder for corals to calcify properly. They may become too brittle and break off at the slightest touch.

An outcrop of coral appears like a seemingly otherworldly realm of underwater beauty. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An outcrop of coral appears like a seemingly otherworldly realm of underwater beauty. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If that happens on a mass scale, it will, needless to say, be an environmental calamity of epic proportions. Not only do many coral reefs serve as natural underwater buffers protecting coasts from waves and stormy waters, but they are also homes for hundreds of species in intricate yet fragile ecosystems. The “Coral Triangle” of Southeast Asia, which spans a total of 85,600 square kilometers and wherein Malaysia’s own reefs are situated, boasts two-thirds of the planet’s coral species and a stunning 3,000 species of reef fish in all. And if you lose the corals, you’ll lose many of those fish and other species that thrive symbiotically on reefs.

The stakes, in other words, are high. So what to do? It’s not within the power of any one nation, such as Malaysia, to arrest the slow march of climate change with its deleterious effects on corals. As industrialized economies keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with wanton abandon, temperatures in tropical waters are bound to rise.

But that does not mean we should shrug our shoulders and throw up our arms in collective resignation. Many of the worst-affected reefs are those close to shore and near popular tourist sites. They have been battered by the fallouts from mass tourism; they have been harmed by irresponsible fishing practices like blast fishing; and they have been damaged by algae blooms – triggered by run-offs of fertilizers from nearby farms – which come to coat the surface of sea water and thereby block the sunlight from the corals below. It’s well within our power to stop, or at least mitigate, all these preventable stress factors.

Reefs, especially those within protected marine parks, need to be shielded from the effects of mass tourism, fishing and environmental pollution. Merely having strict rules in place won’t be enough, however. Stringent enforcement of them will be equally important. Malaysia already has most of the rules, but it will need to enforce them far more rigorously. Simply declaring a reef protected will not make it protected. It will indeed need to be protected through rigorous law enforcement with harsh penalties meted out to law-breakers to deter others.

Locals should also be enlisted to help protect reefs in their waters by monitoring their health and alerting officials of any activities that might harm them. Science, too, can aid us in making corals more resilient to the various stresses facing them. Recently, Australian scientists have discovered a species of coral that can thrive in highly acidic and murky waters near mangrove forests. By understanding how these corals have adopted to their inhospitable environments, scientists could figure out how many of the 800 other species of coral worldwide might be helped to cope better with climate change and human-caused stressors like pollution.

Corals are resourceful creatures. But they will need our help.

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