El Nino Destruction
In 1998, El Nino brought excessive and prolonged heat to the Maldives, bleaching and killing 90 per cent of the nation’s corals, and in some atolls, damaging up to 98 per cent of reefs.
The stress of that year’s oscillation left the normally tropical-colored marine organisms in a pallid white state, and some scientists are trying to speed up the recovery process through cutting-edge techniques of coral propagation, also known as artificial reef growth.
“It’s important to grow them and that is proved, I think,” says Thomas Le Berre, managing director at Seamarc Pvt, Ltd. “It definitely grows. A few years back the international community said it’s not possible and people are still under the impression that it’s hard to grow some corals.”
In conjunction with Four Seasons Resort hotels, Le Berre and a team of engineers have successfully developed a method of growing reefs by attaching small pieces of broken coral onto iron grids and dropping them into the water on trays.
The scientists are looking for methods of growing heat-resistant coral that would be less vulnerable to climate change.
Not only is Seamarc’s project one of the first success stories in the field, its propagation techniques are unique because the grids are portable and can eventually be brought to areas where new coral is needed to speed up recovery.
“This means that if we’ve got bleaching, we can take them further down, let them recover, and bring them back up later,” says Le Berre. “If you can’t move your corals you will lose them. All your effort will be lost.”
Despite the team’s success, coral propagation is still a controversial area because expenses are high, results are uncertain, and outcomes are at a small scale.
“We have to be quite clear: building artificial reefs in resorts will not solve the problem of corals dying around the world…we need to look at large scale human issue.
“Trying to build coral trays to save coral reefs…will not save the Maldives from sinking. What they are fantastic for is to provide an area on a resort which can vastly improve the quality of the reef for a guest… it is also an educational and scientific tool.”
The relationship between the Maldives and coral goes back deep in time, as well as deep into the earth’s surface.
Coral has existed in, below, and around the islands ever since volcanoes from the Indian plate subsided around 55 million years ago, leading to atoll formation, according to Thomas.
“The way I see it is that Maldives is a bit unique because our country is totally built on limestone that has been provided by coral reefs,” says Hussein Zahir, senior reef ecologist at the Marine Research Centre.
“If you travel down the Maldivian reef platform, down to 2,000 meters is still calcium carbonate. They are very important for physical integrity of Maldives.”
Reefs protect the islands from rising sea levels; the destruction of Male’s reefs due to reclamation resulted in a US$14 million project to build a sea wall around the capital island, says Zahir.
It is unclear how much time is left to adapt to sea level rises; the scientific community ranges from setting off a 50 to 200 year hourglass.
“This is not a short-term process,” says Le Berre. “We have 50 years to react and adapt but we better start as soon as possible.”
Unbelievable artificial reefs
While past attempts at propagation provided dismal results, Le Berre’s design has led to colourful new coral.
Armando Karenzlin, general manager of Four Seasons Kuda Huraa North Male atoll, says, “In 2005 or so we started to use the first grids. Now they look unbelievable. I was so excited. They are totally overgrown. You don’t see the grids anymore. Now it’s proven to me that you can grow a reef.”
He says that the easy process of setting up the grids has led it to be a popular activity among guests.
“It’s very quick, very efficient, fun. Kids can get involved in it. They can do a tray in a half hour or so. Some guests are sponsoring them. Putting names on them and we send them pictures,” says Karenzlin.
Stevens says the resort is reaching out to Maldivians from local islands, getting them involved in the propagation process in the hope that interaction with reefs will raise awareness on the issue.
Having attained confident results, Le Berre is now looking to make coral propagation economically feasible. He estimates that it will take approximately US$1 million per year to grow 10,000 square meters of coral.
“We know the tool,” he says, “but we still need to do research to make it as beneficial as possible.”
“Edge of Existence”
Bleaching is not fatal for coral, but an inbuilt mechanism for adapting to stress.
Even calm, still seas lead to a lot of coral bleaching, yet they recover within weeks.
Understanding coral bleaching requires understanding the symbiotic, mutually beneficial, relationship between algae and coral.
Algae, which give coral their pigment, live in coral and transfer food to it, while the coral provides a home for the algae.
A mere three degree increase in temperature, such as the one in 1998, can cause the algae to die, and in order to protect themselves from the dead algae, coral get rid of the algae, as a survival method.
Therefore the bleached coral are not dead. “It’s a safety measure… corals are right on the edge of existence,” says Stevens.
However extremely severe stress will lead to fatality, and that there was a 90 per cent mortality after 1998.
Regardless of whether the coral is bleached or killed, natural processes will recover the coral that El Nino damaged, although the process is slow.
In the past four years, the reefs around the Maldives have had a huge recovery, contrary to “doom and gloom” predictions that came out when the mass bleaching first took place.
Also that he is optimistic because the natural capacity of reefs to recover in the past decade has been good in some places, particularly in the southern atolls.
Proactive v Reactive
While Zahir acknowledges the educational and scientific uses of artificial coral growth, he is more interested in focusing on measures that prevent future damage, and allowing Mother Nature to address the re-growth.
“There are concerns such as sewage reclamation…human-induced threats like pollution, coastal reclamation…Those are much more damaging…It destroys the physical structure of the reef,”.
Stevens also acknowledges the importance of looking at the underlying problem of reef destruction, but he concludes that the destruction in the Maldives was a onetime event, not part of a chronic problem.
“We have 100 resorts or so with reefs that can recover and are recovering, but if you can speed up the process that would be fantastic,” says Stevens.
Scientists do not know how to predict when the next El Nino will come, but Stevens says that you can loosely conclude that one occurs once every three to eight years.
Furthermore their severity is also uncertain; some can have virtually no affect, while some can have far-reaching consequences.
The last waves of El Nino have had no impact on the Maldives, says Stevens.
It is also unclear how much of a concrete impact coral propagation will have in the Maldives.
Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Ibrahim Didi says that his ministry is interested in supporting coral propagation.
He says that a week ago, a bill was submitted to the committee on fisheries from the marine biology research center proposing to begin coral propagation at an uninhabited island.
Didi says he thinks there is a high chance that the proposal will be approved by next week and that the ministry is always interested in new projects. He says that the extent of the ministry’s support for coral propagation will depend on demand.
At this point, the ministry does not know if propagation is economically or environmentally feasible. “It is a pilot project,” he says.
Although there is no widely held view on how to protect coral reefs, there is agreement across the board over the importance of public awareness and support in the process.
Zahir says that snorkeling for everyone, not just tourists, is an important way of gaining interest in coral care.
“More people should go snorkeling and go see how nice [the coral] are,” he says. “Even the politicians who talk about it don’t know. They should go as well.”