August 30, 2017

Maldives Reefs Follow Great Barrier Reef Down Path of Catastrophic Decline

Submitted by Biosphere Expeditions

In 1998, the Maldives was hit by the first global coral bleaching event causing the death of most corals on many reefs down to 60 m depth. Thankfully, some reefs were not badly damaged and so served as a source of coral larvae. During subsequent years, new corals settled on the damaged reefs and recovery proceeded quite well, particularly for fast growing species such as table corals until the next bleaching event in 2010. Unfortunately, Biosphere Expeditions' studies of the Maldives reefs since 2011 show a spiral of coral death and reef decline. Coral cover has been dropping since studies began, and the 3rd Global Bleaching Event that peaked in April/May 2016 killed off many more corals.

Each of the three Global Bleaching Events was due to increased sea temperatures that coincided with El Niño events. Changes in weather patterns due to the El Niño such as reduced wind-driven mixing and increased sunlight are added on top of the steadily increasing seawater temperature due to global warming thus killing corals.

Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, the expedition's coral reef scientist who also works for UK's Marine Conservation Society commented, “Of course, there are always opportunities for some recovery, but the problem is that impacts just keep increasing – sedimentation, pollution, ocean warming, overfishing, ocean acidification, you name it, it's all here in the Maldives, which is why the reefs are in such bad shape and many are unlikely to recover. Indeed, many of the resorts in central areas where we have surveyed are where we've recorded the most catastrophic declines, as the intensity of human impact is highest there.”

Corals are algae/animal hybrids that build coral reefs. The Maldives archipelago only exists because corals built it. Coral reefs are called the “rainforests of the sea” because they are the basis of life for a multitude of fish and other species. These coral rainforests are the very bedrock for coral islands, fisheries, the country's culture, economy and well-being.

According to Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, “Without this coral foundation, you do not have an economy, a country or a basis to live on. And the Maldives are in the process of allowing the destruction of this foundation of their survival as a nation.”

Catherine Edsell, this year's expedition leader, said that, “This year we saw foreign investors, in conjunction with the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, reclaim 7 km of land to build tourist islands akin to those in Dubai. The dredging and dumping of millions of tons of sand smothers the corals in silt and kills them for miles around. As if the reefs don't have to cope with enough already! The world and the Maldives really need to wake up to what is going on just below the surface.”

Historic data show that following bleaching events, coral cover can recover to pre-bleaching abundance in about 12 to 15 years, but only if there are no other impacts such as sedimentation, pollution and other human impacts. Since impacts are common on many atolls in the Maldives, the country's heavily-modified central reefs are rapidly turning into dead coral wastelands. Fish will continue to inhabit the dead coral skeletons until they lose their structural integrity and become rubble, and then the fish populations will have no nursery grounds and no food. “The problem is that coral reefs are largely hidden from view so that their death throes are not seen by the general public until the impacts are felt above the water. By then it is usually too late. So what is concealed just below the surface in our country is a catastrophe already in progress”, says Rafil Mohammed of Reef Check Maldives, a local NGO created as a result of Biosphere Expeditions' placement program. He adds that “rampant overfishing is another serious problem. Each year there are more visitors, more demand for fish and shrinking fish populations. This too is a very serious threat to our country's future.”

Dr. Hammer agrees, adding that, “The world needs to look at what is happening in the Maldives behind the glossy tropical island paradise brochures. Unless the Maldives, its people and its government wake up to the reality of what sad and terrible things are happening to their reefs, then greed, ignorance, apathy and short-sightedness will win the day and kill the reefs – and with it much of the country's economy and the well-being of its citizens. There's no nice way to put this. What we are documenting is the rapid decline of a country in more ways than one.”

Dead Maldives reef, 2017