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Hope in the Ocean.

Byline: Sarah Fahim

'Paradise on earth.' This is a phrase that fits the community of 1200 islands, out of which only 200 are inhabited by the human race. The Maldives is known for its marine richness and scenery. Its surface area makes up for only 1% land. Witnessing the most extreme effects of global warming and climate change, it lies only 1m above sea level. Tourism, followed by the fishing industry, constitutes more than 30% of the Maldives' GDP.

In the diverse marine world, coral reefs in the Maldives pull tourist attention the most. Swimming along, the manta rays and sport fishing also draw the foreigners and add to the exquisiteness of the islands. However, global warming is a deadly phenomenon for the underwater population of coral reefs. According to the World Resources Institute, more than 75% of coral reefs around the globe are endangered. The Maldives face severe changes in the underwater temperature as a result of global warming. If this fluctuation in seawater heat is prolonged, the result will not be mere adverse effect on the marine organisms but as a corresponding consequence, coral reefs could reach the edge of extinction.

Primarily, the threats to coral reefs in the Maldives are twofold. Acidification of seawater and, secondly, the water simply getting too warm. Once the underwater temperature rises, algae that give color to these reefs are likely to be killed and if the rise in temperature prolongs, bleaching is a natural cause. This is precisely why the government and independent nature conservation bodies are taking measures and devising strategies to protect them. Marine organisms find shelter in these reefs and, in the absence of the reefs, marine life is bound to suffer.

Back in 1998, such an event could have been perilous for the coral reefs almost irrevocably. More than 95% of coral reefs in the Maldives were severely damaged when the sea temperature rose above ninety degrees centigrade and the temperature prolonged in duration. The coral reefs were bleached, deteriorating a diverse marine ecosystem and home to marine organisms which have become very rare species. This occurrence is named El Nino and it was after this event, that the protective measures picked up pace to preserve the reefs and restore life.

Organizations and processes for reef checks were formed in the 1980s. Now reef checks have been handed over to the local population. Divers are trained on how to undertake the scrutinizing processes and are encouraged to keep a check on the Maldives' Velassaru reefs, enhancing efficiency of checking the health of the coral reefs. The initiative was taken in this regard by the Biosphere Expedition in January 2015. The coral reefs are not only providing shelter to marine life globally, but also protect the human habitation from wave currents as they break their pace.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, along with a travel industry service, has trained 40 marine biologists and dive guides for coral reef protection. Five monitoring protocols namely Coral Point Count, Fish Landings, SharkWatch, BleachWatch and FishWatch have also been implemented. Three reef management plans devising legal obligations and healthy fishing practices were also formulated. Ever since 2008, this collaboration has been taking steps and implementing procedures to secure coral reefs in the Maldives and in a few other countries.

In 2010, another bleaching took place in the Maldives due to increased seawater temperature. Global warming took its toll and the seawater remained warm for a period that exceeded the immunity level of the coral reefs against acidification. A UK-based conservation organisation named Marine Conservation Society collaborated with the Maldives Marine Research Centre to conduct a study about how many coral reefs had been recovered and the progress of further betterment.

By September 2012, the collaborative study revealed that 60% of live corals had recovered and had been populated again after the 1998 bleaching incidence. There is now only a certain amount of acidification that the reefs are immune to. Global warming is unstoppably adding to the acidic content underwater and this, in turn, affects the coral reefs quite adversely. Without effective, continuous and organised preservation, the islands might see a time when coral reefs may no longer exist in this heaven on earth.

According to the Great Barrier Reef (are you referring to some organization), coral cover has been decreasing by 50% globally over the last 27 years. The average sea temperature at present is 29 degrees centigrade, which itself is harmful to coral existence. Should the temperature reach 30 degrees centigrade for any length of time, there is a high probability of yet another bleaching episode.

Baa Atoll comprises 463 miles of the Indian Ocean and lies within the Maldives. It is named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It has a shallow seafloor and is 86 degrees Fahrenheit warm. The temperature has already bleached 10-15% of the coral reefs in the shallow parts of Baa Atoll, whereas 50-70% of the coral reefs there have begun to pale. This was the situation in 2010. Funding for the Centre of Baa Atoll comes from 6 resorts in the area and the government. This amount is invested for preserving the harmed and endangered coral reefs. Ever since 2012, formulated by the management of the Biosphere Expedition, tourists have to pay a certain amount if they wish to take a swim along the manta rays or do sport fishing. Nine areas have been declared as no fishing zones.

The Marine Conservation Society also collaborated with the Maldives Marine Research Centre for a 4 year program that lasted from 2009 to 2013. The project was called Managing Coral Reef Fisheries for Biodiversity, Ecosystem and Economic Benefit or the Darwin Reef Fish Project. It was funded by the Darwin Initiative (DEFRA, UK) and was also supported by the Ministry of Fisheries, Agriculture and Marine Resources of the Maldives. Additionally, two more projects have been initiated and Whale Shark and Manta Ray Conservation is one of them. Project REGENERATE is the second, also known as the Reef Generate Environmental and Economic Resilience for Atoll Ecosystems.

The government of the Maldives must encourage such ventures and projects. If ignored and rendered helpless, coral reefs will be victimized by effects of global warming and acidification in no time, making them vanish altogether due to extensive bleaching and high sea temperature conditions.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9MALD
Date:Apr 30, 2015
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