Maldives suffering worst coral bleaching since 1998

The Maldives is currently suffering the most serious incidence of coral bleaching since the major 1998 El Niñoevent that destroyed most of the country’s shallow reef coral.

Coral bleaching is caused when rising water temperatures stress the coral, leading it to expel the algae it uses to obtain nutrients. When water temperatures rise even slightly, algae leaves the coral polyp and enters the water column, causing the coral to lose its colour and eventually die.

Reports of bleaching have been trickling in from marine biologists and researchers across the country.

Hussein Zahir from the Marine Research Centre (MRC) has been collecting reports of the bleaching, and said that based on his estimates, “10-15 percent of shallow reef coral is now completely white, while 50-70 percent has begun to pale.”

Senior Marine Biologist Guy Stevens, based at the Four Seasons Resort in Landaa Giraavaru, said that he had noticed that bleaching was beginning to occur last year “after a change in the weather linked to El Niño. The last one in 1998 was pretty catastrophic, and reefs in the Maldives have been recovering ever since.”

“It had a huge impact across the Indian Ocean, and the Maldives was most affected – pristine reefs suffered coral mortality rates of 95 percent,” Stevens explained. “At the time people were mortified and scientists were predicting the end of the reefs – coral is the foundation of the whole reef ecosystem.”

Coral in North Male Atoll at different stages of bleaching

Since the devastating El Niño in 1998, marine biologists in the Maldives “have been holding their breath for the next one. In the meantime the coral has been slowly recovering. It was pretty depressing in 2003, but roll forward to 2010 and it’s starting to look good again. It recovers exponentially.”

Meanwhile, colleagues of Stevens based in Thailand, which escaped largely unscathed in 1998, have reported coral mortality rates “of up to 100 percent.”

“The hot spots move around, but they cover a big area and the coral here could easily take another hit,” Stevens commented.

Zahir noted that temperatures this year were following similar patterns to those of 1998, with a surface temperature in April of one degree above the long term average.

However the recent drop in temperature, brought on by rain and the onset of the southwest monsoon, has lowered the surface sea temperature and brought some relief, “and may give the coral time to recover.”

“Now the temperature has dropped from 32 degrees to 29-30 degrees, so hopefully things will improve. The conditions are right for the coral to become healthy again,” Zahir noted, however he emphasised the need for the tourism industry to assist with monitoring the bleaching.

“Here in the Maldives we have a vast reef area, and the MRC has very little capacity to do surveys. From the very beginning we’ve been running a bleach-watch reporting programme with the dive industry, but for some reason the feedback has been very disappointing. There’s a hundred resorts, but I can count on my fingers the ones who are working to raise awareness. I know it might impact on their marketing, but this needs to be documented.”

All the MRC required was GPS coordinates and an indication of how much bleaching was occurring, he explained.

In the meantime, both Stevens and Zahir noted that there was little that could be done to prevent further bleaching.

Cooler temperatures may have averted disaster

“There is very little we can do, especially in a resort environment, other than reducing human impact on the reef while it recovers – that means ceasing things like sand-pumping and beach renewal on a daily basis, while the reef is especially vulnerable to sedimentation,” Zahir explained.

Verena Wiesbauer, a marine biologist at Male-based consultancy Water Solutions, said she had just returned from visiting two islands in North Male’ Atoll and had documented heavy coral bleaching.

“The reefs had only just recovered, and now it’s struck again. It’s a big setback,” she observed.

“Fortunately it’s not as bad as 1998, and now the temperature is dropping. But I hope someone will keep track of the paling coral, to see if it gets its colour back.”

Wiesbauer added that the bleaching did not appear to have affected fish numbers yet, and suggested that “many fish don’t need live coral as long as the structure is there for them to hide in, and many algae feeders don’t mind [bleaching] at all. But there are some specialist coral feeders we need to watch for changes.”

Meanwhile, like Zahir, Stevens observed that the tourism industry appeared to have been in no hurry to report that bleaching was occurring.

“That’s something the resorts obviously don’t want to publicise,” Stevens commented. “But I don’t think it’s any good burying our heads in the sand, when there’s going to be no sand left to bury our heads in.”

The artificial coral breeding programs run at many resorts were well-intentioned, “but rather like putting a band-aid on a gushing wound.”

“It doesn’t address the issue. Rather [breeding programmes] are a tool to raise awareness and alleviate pressure on the local reef. But there are things like sand-pumping that resorts should halt during periods of bleaching because it makes the problem worse,” he said, concurring with Zahir.

“Otherwise there’s very little we can do – it’s really a global issue. We haven’t seen a reduction in fish life, turtles and mantas, and it seems those parts of the ecosystem can survive while the reef structure is at least in place, but overall I think we’re going to see a gradual decline. Coral reefs may be the first ecosystem we’ll lose on our planet.”

Images courtesy of the Marine Research Centre (MRC).


19 thoughts on “Maldives suffering worst coral bleaching since 1998”

  1. This is the true meaning of being helpless huh. Nothing much to do but monitor and hope for the best.

    People obsessed about how beautiful that planet in Avatar was. They clearly haven't been diving on a nice reef; or seen anything else really. I wish people could be as passionate and appreciative about their own planet.

    I just hope human's as a species realize what's best for them before its too late.

  2. making a big noise in international level about climate change and threat to maldives was one of few good things Maumoon did

  3. Maumoon never did much to protect the environment at home. think of all the dredging and land reclamation that have happened without EPAs. or neglecting the waste disposal. a significant area of most inhabited islands are used as garbage dumps.

    Gayoom was indeed a climate hero internationally, but Anni is more of a climate hero than Gayoom ever dreamed of. Gayoom could have done so much more at home during his long reign.

    I think Anni is trying much much harder, but only time will tell if he's any better than Gayoom on the environmental front at home

  4. If we are talking of dredging and messing with teh environment what about Champa Moosa's sandbank-now-island? what has been done about that?

  5. Guy Stevens never did any coral reef research, in Four Seasons Resorts. he was doing Whale Shark/Manta Ray Research there. The Coral reef research is done buy Thomas (SEAMARC) and his colleagues. So why didn't you guys just add some information's from Thomas, who does lots of coral research here in Maldives. I think he is the person who is in water all the time looking for these behaviors more than Mr Steven's.

  6. Instead of blaming Gayyom, Nasheed, Adhaalath in this issue for once Maldivians should think of individual responsibility. Individually start practicing measures that will reduce green house gases as well as the impact on the reef. Reduce your waste, use environment freindly products, use energy efficient equipment. Actually there are things we can do at the individual level.

  7. To preserve and protect the reef environment, several things need to happen.Among others, a change of attitude of those who use these natural environments is surely needed. Policies that are required to implement monitoring and regulation of the usage of reefs, also got to be in place. It does not help if the 'noise' is only coming out of the President's office. All stakeholders within the government, including the Marine Research Centre, can work together to develop a strategic approach to protection of our reef system. Again a carefully designed public awareness campaign can also be beneficial.

  8. Changing daily habits is one thing, but we also need to see that the resorts and big businesses have at least just as big a role to play in alleviating our environmental problems. Yes we do need better waste management, and greater awareness among the public etc., but we shouldn't lose focus on how the activities of big businesses can be controlled. For eg, by introducing an environmental tax... maybe?

  9. Thanks A i i for pointing out that Mr. Stevens is doing his research on manta rays and whale sharks. If he thinks the coral propagation project is not useful I wonder why he is working on manta rays and whale sharks which have been protected in this country since 1995 and are not really exploited.

  10. It is thanks to the Tourism industry that we have any sort of environmental conservation in this country. The housereefs of resorts act as Protected Areas as all extractive activities are prohibited on them. It is true that tourism does have some impact on the reefs, especially by those resorts that do not really have the environment as one of their priorities. But one has to admit that the tourism industry is a driving force behind the state of our environment. Many resorts want to put mooring buoys to avoid anchoring on the reefs but at present there is no mechanism to do it, all resorts to an EIA before they do any coastal activities etc. The mentality of the local people need to change alongside and at the same time we need to get out of our denial and accept that our reefs are at risk and do something about it rather than spend our time on islamic extremism!

  11. awareness programs does not work at all as these corals are things which we do not see. I think we should make more people see the natural beauty by introducing them for snorkeling or scuba diving. Then they might understand how much it means by one plastic bag they throw into the sea. We learn more by experience than from books.

  12. why everything is becomeing a ploitical issue? this is seriouse problem for al of us. dnt blame anyone.let us do something for our NATION

  13. I can't agree 100%. Because I started my professional diving in April 2004, from that on till Nov 2009 I worked in Rasdhoo Atoll. I've more than 3000 dives and most of dives done in Rasdhoo Atoll, North & South Ari Atoll. I do care myself our coral reefs. Compared to 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 coral growth rates perfect in these Atoll. I'm not a marinebiologist, however I've done few measurement in some spotted corals and kept checking every other day in a specific area's coral. Have a look Rasdhoo-Madivaru outer reef, Himmendhoo Thila, Maalhos Thila, etc much more excellent than 2004 apart from somefishing lines. Come and have a look in Thulusdhoo region. Everyday fishing boat somewhere around on our sensitive reefs no one care. Protected marine areas are just names no one care. Why no action against those who break the rules. It was last month 2nd or 3rd I've been on a Protected marine area called "HP Reef" near Girifushi, 5 dive dhonis were there and one local fishing boat fishing there and I asked the other dive dhonis captain, "why these people are fishing in a Protected marine area and why no of you asked them to move?" They replied me, "we asked but they don't move" then I asked our captain to move our boat closed to that fishing boat and I spoke them myself and bagged to move, finally they moved away. I would say every other day I get these kind of things from locals. So I can say no coral bleaching that much apart from few area, just we (human) doing more worst thing and never care much about our coral reefs. Everyday, anchoring and pulling anchors back, so imagine how many time they do this a day. Its impossible for the government to keep security each and every place after been done a rule, we, our people also have to work together instead of working for our own pleasure... it's wierd to finger-point each others.

  14. The coral bleaching is mainly due to the late monsoon onset and negative IOD, perhaps influenced by La Nina. No evidence to global warming.

  15. There's plenty of evidence when you consider the Maldive bleaching in the context of the Indonesian bleaching of 2010, the Thailand bleaching of 2010, the FlowerGardens Reef bleaching (Texas, USA, 2010) and the Caribbean. This is only the second global bleaching event, after 1998's. But UN Env. Program predicts annual bleaching will become the norm by 2020 for many reefs, preceding demise if we do not manage to cool high-value reefs to keep a few of them alive this century. So The Climate Foundation is demonstrating this approach to keeping reefs alive.

  16. We will be visiting Maldives middle of March on a liveaboard.
    We both are ReefCheck Eco divers. Can we help in collecting some data a s we will visit many different areas.
    We can also provide pictures.

  17. Hi i am doing a school project and i need some information on this can you guys help please.

  18. i am also doing research on this and i have to write 4 paragraphs if you guys could help that would be great


Comments are closed.