By Biosphere Expeditions & Reef Check Maldives Coordinator, Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt
Scientists who have been surveying reefs around the Maldives in the Indian Ocean say the level of recovery in recent years has left some reefs with more live coral cover than before a catastrophic bleaching event in 1998.
Last month, Biosphere Expeditions, an international conservation non-profit organization and long-time Reef Check partner, sent scientists from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and the Maldives Marine Research Centre to the islands to examine previously bleached coral.
Coral bleaching – where corals lose their color and are left white or 'bleached' - can lead to weakened and dead corals. Bleaching is thought to be the result of increased water temperature, leading to coral 'stress'.
Biosphere Expeditions set up a research project on the islands, enlisting the expertise of Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, MCS Biodiversity Officer, as the project's lead scientist. This year the focus was on undertaking repeat Reef Check surveys at areas first surveyed before and during the bleaching in 1998 that killed most shallow water corals completely.
The project found that unlike the results recently published from The Great Barrier Reef, which found that coral cover there had been reduced by over 50% in the last 27 years, the more isolated, offshore and clean waters of the Maldives appear to offer better conditions for coral recovery.
The Great Barrier Reef report highlighted three main causes of coral death: outbreaks of coral-eating starfish, mass bleaching of corals, and major storms. However, the Maldives has been different in terms of the number and severity of impacts. The Reef Check surveys this September, carried out by volunteers from all over the world, show that many reefs have recovered to populations in excess of 60% live coral, and that at one site the coral cover is greater now than in 1997.
Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt said, "Although our surveys aren't as comprehensive in scale and number as those from the Great Barrier Reef, we have witnessed a promising recovery in the reefs we've visited. The number of chronic impacts to the reefs of the Maldives are fewer than those to the Great Barrier Reef, and that has probably resulted in this more positive response to the initial bleaching event die-off in the sites we visited in Ari Atoll."
However, Dr. Solandt warns conservationists and local managers in the Maldives that they cannot be complacent.
"There is overfishing of large predatory fish and further ocean warming events on the horizon, and some of the reefs nearer to Male' appear not to have recovered as extensively as those further afield."
Dr. Matthias Hammer, Founder and Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions, says that whatever the state of the Maldives reefs are now, it's the outlook that's important. "Even though the Maldives reefs are generally in waters of excellent purity from man-made pollutants and are seldom hit by coral-damaging storms or attacks by coral eating starfish, the consistently high sea temperatures [averaging 29 degrees Celsius] around the Maldives could lead to bleaching once again if temperatures reach over 30 degrees for any length of time. Without wanting to spread doom and gloom, the prospects of sea-level rise and ocean acidification have the power to remove the Maldives from the map."
Further surveys will be carried out in 2013. Volunteer divers, who do not need any special skills to help with this research, can find out more via www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives.
As part of this year's expedition, MCS completed the training of 12 new Maldivian Reef Check surveyors, including two who were awarded the highly sought-after scholarship to be aboard the MV Carpe Diem on the trip. The collaboration consisted of four key partners: MCS provided the scientific training; Biosphere Expeditions, who organized the expedition and recruited international volunteers to join; Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC), who provided the in-country trainees; and Soneva, a conservation-aware local resort who funded the two scholarship awards. At the conclusion of the trip, two individuals from MRC were certified as Reef Check trainers, thus ensuring that the legacy of Reef Check remains strong in the country.