Bleaching and crown of thorns wreak havoc on Maldives reefs – but is this a temporary blip?
Coral reefs have existed for around 300 million years. Today they are under severe threat and the island nation of the Maldives, whose economy and very existence is based on corals, is no exception. Biosphere Expeditions and the Marine Conservation Society report.
Both coral bleaching (where hot water stresses corals) and Crown of Thorns starfish can be considered ‘natural’ events. But when these events happen often and with increased severity, reef survival is threatened, and therefore the very survival of coral reef nations such as the Maldives.
Recent dive surveys by an international and Maldivian team of divers (Biosphere Expeditions, the Marine Conservation Society and Maldivian partners) have revealed a worrying reduction in the amount of Maldivian live coral over the past year. Healthy coral cover has been reduced to below 10% in more sheltered inner atoll reefs by bhe recent El Niño that has also devastated much of the Great Barrier Reef. El Niño hit the Maldives in May this year with two weeks of 32 degrees centigrade waters – at least 2 degrees above the ‘normal’ upper limit of 30 degrees. Outer reefs that are flushed with deeper, cooler water on a more regular basis have fared better (with an average of 25% live coral cover).
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt the Biosphere Expeditions programme scientist from the Marine Conservation Society says: “Our surveys showed a clear pattern, with reefs inside atolls being the worst affected.” Some of the reefs denuded by the warming have also been hit hard by Crown of Thorns starfish, which eat corals. Solandt continues: “Sadly, one of the reefs that was beautiful with upwards of 70% hard coral some four years ago have their remnant corals now being eaten by Crown of Thorns starfish. These coral-eating starfish have decimated the Great Barrier Reef through geological time, and have been affecting the Maldives for over two years now.”
Shaha Hashim, a Maldivian conservationist and linchpin for community-based survey and reef conservation efforts, took part in the expedition to and adds: “More stringent efforts to conserve and build up the resilience of these marine ecosystems are crucial for our survival as an island nation. Development planning and policies need to put a higher value on environmental impacts, which is the prerequisite for any social or economic harmony.”
Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, concludes: “We are very concerned for the people of the Maldives. Almost everything depends on healthy reefs: The economy, food, welfare, tourism income. If reefs are threatened, so is the very existence of the country and its social cohesion. We hope the reefs will recover, and whilst coral bleaching cannot be locally managed, fisheries, litter and pollution can be. We urge the government to use some of the income from the heavily consumptive tourism industry to pay back – to invest in the very survival of their islands and nation. Without investment from this sector, we believe the reefs will struggle to return.”
But there is a silver lining: “What gives us hope is that the last big bleaching even in 1998 was hotter, longer and more severe, and many reefs recovered good coral growth within seven years”, says Solandt. Hammer adds: “It is not all doom and gloom. Where officialdom is failing, civil society and committed Maldivians are stepping in. Ever since Biosphere Expeditions started running its annual research trip to the Maldives in 2011, it has educated and trained Maldivians in reef survey techniques as part of the Biosphere Expeditions’ placement programme. This culminated in the first-ever all-Maldivian reef survey in November 2014 and other community-based conservation initiatives since then, the latest in March 2016. Shaha Hasihim, for example, has taken part in several expeditions and is now training her compatriots in reef survey techniques and setting up community-based conservation programmes. So there is hope yet!”.
Biosphere Expeditions and the Marine Conservation Society have published a recommendations and action plan. They recommend – at a national scale:
1. Minimum and maximum landing sizes of reef fish within commercial fisheries (as recommended by the Darwin Grouper project).
2. Ensure that resorts only buy fish above breeding age (much of the data of the size of maturity of reef fish is available from http://www.fishbase.org). Any fish below the size of maturity should be refused by resort marine biologists and catering staff.
3. Enforce protection of grouper spawning grounds, as recommended by scientists under the Darwin Grouper project, and gazetted under Maldivian law.
4. Employ marine enforcement officers at resorts to patrol house reefs, and to make them ‘no take zones’.
5. Only allow ‘catch and release’ fishing for resort guests as a matter of Maldivian law, enforced by resorts themselves with their own marine enforcement officers.
6. Use the economic returns from the tourism sector, and fisheries sector to invest in a proper waste recycling system to avoid the dumping and burning of waste.
7. Ensure that each resort uses tertiary sewage systems to treat waste water.
8. Where possible, use renewable technologies to harness the power of the sun, tide and wind to support the large energy demands of the tourist sector.
9. Use national incentives, such as ‘greenest resort award’ and ‘best reef award’ for those resorts who manage their reefs and environmental impact well. Provide tax breaks for such resorts.
Here is a selection of pictures from this year’s expedition. Thank you to everyone who contributed.