January 13, 2012

Coral Bleaching Management in Malaysia


By Reef Check Malaysia

Coral reefs are valuable resources, attracting millions of visitors each year to Malaysia. It is estimated that coral reefs in Malaysia are worth some US$600 million annually through direct and indirect revenues from the tourism and fisheries industries and coastal protection.

In the Indo-Pacific, bleaching events have been widely reported since the 1980s. Coral bleaching occurs when corals are stressed by environmental conditions such as unusually high sea temperatures, low salinity, and exposure to toxic chemicals. It is characterized by the loss of microscopic algae called zooxanthellae that live within the tissues of most corals. Zooxanthellae not only provide corals with a food supply, they are also responsible for giving corals their distinctive green and brown coloration.

More recently, Malaysia experienced bleaching events in 1998, 2004 and 2010. Widespread coral bleaching occurred in Peninsular Malaysia from mid April to June 2010 and bleaching in East Malaysia was reported from mid May to early June 2010. Coral bleaching seems to be increasing in frequency due to the rapidly changing environment and increasing anthropogenic threats.


Some scientists are predicting that coral bleaching will occur annually in the coming decades. While bleaching cannot easily be prevented or stopped, steps can be taken to promote coral recovery after a bleaching event.

Acknowledging this, Reef Check Malaysia has teamed up with the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia to establish a framework response for coral bleaching management. A Bleaching Response Plan is being drafted that will define a set of pre-determined actions to be taken in response to bleaching-related events. It represents an urgent need for collaboration between managers, government, non-governmental agencies and concerned stakeholders to take immediate actions to improve reef ecosystem resilience, aiding recovery from the stress events. The objective is to put in place a simple mechanism to react to bleaching events with appropriate actions.

The response plan will have 4 major components:

1. Early warning system
By combining satellite data with a community-based monitoring network, bleaching will be reported to the various responsible authorities when it occurs. This enables predicting and identifying possible bleaching events, which will provide information for communication with stakeholders, government agencies and the media.

2. Ground-truthing survey
This will be done by assessing and measuring the level and impact of bleaching by setting up a bleaching task force to carry out bleaching monitoring and investigation. Once data is gathered, a brief report of the preliminary results can be prepared.

3. Public awareness and communication exercise
It is important to let all stakeholders know how they can adapt to bleaching problems, and also how human activities can be managed to reduce further damage to bleached reefs.

4. Resilience building action plan
In order to give coral reefs the best chance of survival, relevant authorities will take appropriate steps to remove and reduce human stresses to the reef.


The bleaching response plan is a post-occurrence, short term action plan. Our real focus should be first and foremost to mitigate the causes of coral bleaching i.e. reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. Everyone can help. Simple steps such as switching off electrical appliances when not in use, turning off the tap while you are brushing your teeth, using public transport or car pooling, will go a long way. Even though you might be physically detached from the reefs, you can still do your part to save them from disappearing.

For more information, contact Reef Check Malaysia at wecare@reefcheck.org.my