The government has issued a MVR 62.7 million (US$ 4 million) compensation claim for damages caused to the coral reef on Male’s east coast by a stranded cargo ship.
Earlier this month (January 7) a 27,000-ton vessel called ‘Auguste Schulte’ became stranded in shallow water while attempting to make a turn near the coast of the Raalhugandu area in Male’.
Tug boats, assisted by the Maldives National Defence Force, were able to refloat the 213 metre long ship after a three-hour effort, local media reported.
A subsequent investigation by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) calculated the damage to the reef to be worth MVR 62,733,800, Chairman of the Transport Authority Abdul Rasheed Nafiz told Minivan News.
“[Auguste Schulte’s local operator] Silver Company can either pay the fine to the government so the ship can continue its voyage or pay a bank guarantee should they wish to carry out their own investigation and let the ship leave.
“From what I understand, [Silver Company] intend to carry out their own survey and through that they will try negotiate the compensation claim cost,” Nafiz added.
The Transport Authority Chairman said that the Attorney General had stated under the Environment Protection Law that the government has the right to assess the damage to reef and calculate the cost of such damage.
The Transport Authority earlier stated that the government could impose a fine of MVR 85,000 (US$ 5,508) per square metre of damage caused to the reef.
Mohammed Nabeel, Managing Director of Silver Company, told local media that the company had begun efforts to try and secure the bank guarantee that currently stood at $4 million.
“We are trying to make sure that the ship departs as soon as possible. We do believe that there must be a fine in this matter, but the government has also said that there is room for negotiation,” he was quoted as saying by Sun Online.
Nabeel added that the company was also trying to assess the damages caused by the stranded vessel, and that negotiations will be based on their findings, local media reported.
Previously, a ship operated by Delmas – the same company local media reported to have owned Auguste Schulte – became stranded in the same area for 20 days.
Nabeel told local media that the compensation claim for that previous ship was set at MVR 4.5 million (US$ 291,828), adding that the contrast between the two figures is “remarkable”.
Responding to these comments, Nafiz said that the EPA has produced a report on the latest damage and Silver Company will be able to compare the two incidents as the conclusion is based on “the same formula”.
Environment Protection Agency were not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.
Scientists have witnessed a “promising” recovery in the coral reefs around the Maldives, a recent survey has revealed.
The results show that some reefs now have more live coral cover than before the catastrophic El Niño bleaching event in 1998, which killed 95 percent of the country’s reefs – a key attraction for foreign tourists.
The project was set up by international conservation non-profit organisation Biosphere Expeditions. Scientists from the UK-based Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and the Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) surveyed areas known to have suffered from heavy bleaching.
The reef check conducted in September showed that many badly damaged reefs have recovered to populations in excess of 60 percent live coral. On one site, the survey team found there was more coral cover now than there was in 1997.
The latest findings follow a severe case of coral bleaching in 2010, when the MRC reported a resurgence of coral bleaching following a prolonged sea temperature rise.
The project found that the isolated, offshore and cleaner waters of the Maldives appeared to offer better conditions for coral recovery – contrasting findings published from the Great Barrier Reef, which noted that coral cover had reduced by more than 50 percent in the last 27 years.
Lead scientist for the project, MCS Biodiversity Officer 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.”
The focus of this year’s project was to undertake reef check surveys in areas first surveyed before and during the El Niño bleaching in 1998.
Meaning ‘little boy’ in Spanish, El Niño is a phenomenon which damaged more than 95 per cent of the Maldives’ reefs following three months of unusually high seawater temperatures that year.
Even the slightest rise in water temperature can put stress on the coral, causing it to lose its colour and turn white, before eventually dying.
Coral bleaching was named as one of the three main causes of coral death, along with outbreaks of coral-eating starfish and damage from major storms.
Despite the findings, Dr Solandt warned conservationists and stakeholders in the Maldives that they cannot afford to be complacent.
“There is over-fishing 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,” he added.
Founder and Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions Dr Matthias Hammer said that whatever the current state of the Maldive’s reefs, the future outlook was important.
“Even though the Maldive’s 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,” he noted.
Environment Minister Dr Mariyam Shakeela was not responding at time of press.
The designation of Baa Atoll as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve is a significant achievement for the Maldives but makes proper management all the more imperative, government organisations and environmental NGOs have said.
Baa Atoll was last month added to the UN body’s global list of biosphere reserves, placing it in the company of world famous sites such as the Komodo in Indonesia, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia and the Galapagos Islands.
The listing recognises “where local communities are actively involved in governance and management, research, education, training and monitoring at the service of both socio-economic development and biodiversity conservation,” UNESCO said in a statement.
It has also prompted a surge of tourism interest in Baa Atoll, requiring local bodies to balance the impact and sustainability objectives of the biosphere with the new income.
Director of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) Ibrahim Naeem said it took five years of lobbying for Baa Atoll to become the first globally recognised biosphere in the Maldives.
“The whole atoll has been zoned into three categories, limiting activities conducted there,” he explained.
‘Core areas’ account for 10 percent of the atoll with no extraction activities permitted – “look and see only”, Naeem explained. Buffer areas limit some activities while transitional areas allow most activities if conducted in a sustainable fashion.
Exceptionally unique areas, such as Hanifaru Bay, have a management plan to limit access, Naeem explained: “We allow resorts and safari boats to visit Hanifaru Bay on alternate days to avoid conflicts,” he said, adding that the EPA had appointed a ranger to monitor vessels in the area and was training several more to cover the rest of the atoll.
At the beginning of the process many locals expressed reluctance about the atoll being designated a biosphere, fearing that their traditional fishing areas would be restricted, he acknowledged.
That concern still exists, says Ahmed Ikram, Director of Environmental NGO Bluepeace.
“Local divers and other groups are concerned that these places will become so protected and so exclusive that locals will be unable to access them,” he said. “We have started to hear concerns that these sites will be cordoned off to the public, with access controlled by resorts and limited access for independent dive companies and safaris.”
Local people needed to be trained as rangers, guides and attendants, and NGOs, island womens’ committees and fishermen needed to be involved in decision-making, Ikram said.
“The EPA has handed the management to the Baa Atoll council, but without any capacity building,” he claimed, while resorts sponsored “greenwashing” campaigns to fulfill their corporate social responsibility objectives, protecting their house reefs and excluding local communities.
“The reefs around resorts are some of the most protected in the Maldives. Why are the house reefs of local islands not being protected too?” Ikram asked.
In some cases tourism authorities had failed to take into account traditional bait fishing grounds when leasing islands for resort development.
“If they fall in the vicinity [of the resort] the fishermen will still go there to fish, as they have done so for thousands of years – it would quickly become a national issue if they were stopped,” he said, adding that climate change had also affected many of these areas forcing fishermen to harvest bait elsewhere.
“Already in some areas climate change has meant that fishermen are having to dive 40 metres to get bait,” Ikram said. “We need to remember than man is part of the ecosystem.”
Deputy Environment Minister Mohamed Shareef told Minivan News that the Baa Atoll management scheme would include the creation of revenue mechanism for the community whereby, for example, “one dollar from each dive goes to fund the needs of the local community.”
The management process, he said, was participatory, and for the locals, “absolutely nothing has changed. Local fishing practices and the manner of living is very sustainable, from knowledge generated over many years.”
Baa Atoll is home to 12,000 people distributed across 13 populated islands and six resorts. The atoll is one of the most biodiverse in the Maldives with high concentrations of manta rays, whale sharks and turtles, and a number of species of coral and sea slugs unique to the area.
The ‘How Blue is Your Ocean’ exhibition launched yesterday at Male’s National Centre for Arts, featuring a selection of works by Indian artist and environmentalist Bipasha Sen Gupta.
Gupta’s works depict an array of hazy underwater scenes with embossed corals spreading across the canvas like capillaries.
“I’ve seen a lot of coral as a Maldivian. But this is the first time I’ve seen it through the eyes of an artist,” said Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam, opening the exhibition.
“As you stare at the paintings a while you grow to understand the deep message of how important coral is to an island nation like the Maldives. Islands are sustained by the reef, islands are protected by the reef, and the sand and building blocks come from the reef,” he said.
“The sea water is rising at 2mm per year, reefs grow at 7-12mm per year, and it’s important that reefs kept up with rising seas. However rising surface temperatures and increasingly acidic water is slowing the growth of the reefs, and many in the Maldives are slow to recover from the effects of bleaching.”
Gupta spent a year working on 29 paintings of coral after being inspired during a visit to the Maldives in 2005 – after she learned how to snorkel and explore “the rainforest underwater.”
“God does not exist in the empty temples we build – the mosques, churches and synagogues – but in the small miracles of life,” she said.
The event was organised in collaboration with the National Centre for the Arts, the Indian High Commission and the Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) in celebration of World Environment Day.
The exhibition is opened to public from 10.00am to 4:00pm and from 7:00pm to 9:00pm.
The Maldives may be growing with the rising waters, say a team of six scientists studying the sediments and growth of Maldivian islands.
“We take climate change very seriously,” says Paul Kench, a geologist from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “But in order to correctly predict the real consequences for the atolls, we first have to understand how they will actually respond to rising sea levels in the future.”
The Maldives attained their current form about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, according to the scientists’ research. Even natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami, which killed at least 82 people in the Maldives, do not destroy the islands, Kench claims. On the contrary, the Indian Ocean tsunami even added new sediments. “We’ve measured up to 30 centimeters of growth in some places,” he says.
The Maldives is currently suffering the most serious incidence of coral bleaching since the major 1998 El Niño–event 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.”
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.
“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).
The Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture has raised the alarm over cracks appearing in Male’ reef, after surveys revealed they could eventually cause the reef to collapse just as it did in January outside the Nasandhura Hotel.
State Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture, Dr Mohamed Ali, said the cracks in Malé reef are “serious problems because it is the reef on which we are building this infrastructure.”
He said the amount of weight and activity around the reef is “debilitating the structure [and] part of it has already collapsed.”
“Cracks are a significant threat to infrastructure,” he said. “We fear some of the reef face might just fall off.”
Dr Ali said although there were many options being looked to try and resolve or alleviate the issue, “nothing is being done” at the moment. He added one of the simplest options to help relieve the pressure on the reefs was to “reduce the load” they are subjected to.
He said although some of the cracks were natural, “it is [mostly] due to some external forces that exacerbate it.”
He added that the effect of pollution and contamination were also of major concern.
Director of Environmental Protection and Research at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Ibrahim Naeem said although “cracks are a common occurrence… there are some threats.”
He said the cracks were occurring “on the reef structure, on the non-living basement of the reef.”
Naeem noted “there is a possibility of collapse” and added “it has happened in many regions,” including in Malé near the Hulhumalé ferry terminal. He said the north-east area of the island was the most vulnerable.
The cracks were usually caused “when people start making buildings and heavy structures, and loading and unloading heavy equipment and goods,” such as granite rock, near vulnerable areas of the reef.
He noted it is “really hard to reconstruct [the reef base]” and if it was to be done, reconstruction might have to start from the sea bed. “We would have to be careful,” he suggested.
Naeem said there had been some studies on the corals around Malé which concluded “it is not a good idea to build heavy structures in these [vulnerable] areas.”
He said the government has also “advised agencies not to give licences to build high structures in those areas.”
Head of Malé Municipality Adam Manik said the incident in front of Nasandhuraa Hotel in Malé, where part of the reef seemingly collapsed, “has nothing to do with the coral reef. It’s the piling.”
Manik said some of the metal pilings beneath Malé, which are 18 inches wide, “don’t reach the lagoon floor bed.”
He said due to “wave action,” the sand beneath the pilings loosens, leaving a gap between the sea bed and the pilings.
He said on 1 January 2010, when the reef collapsed at the hotel, he rushed to Malé to find “several ministries were involved, making a mountain out of a mole-hole.”
He said it would be very “irresponsible of the government” if they were “not giving due credence to these things if they are true.”
Manik said there could be caves in the reef, which would account for the sightings of large cracks. But overall, he said he felt “the whole concept is wrong.”
Building codes stipulate the height of buildings should be determined by the size of their base, but there is no code that limits the weight of a building, Manik added.
Currently, Malé Municipality is in charge of overseeing constructions and making sure they follow the building codes.
Ali Rilwan from environmental NGO Bluepeace said there are places in the reef where “reef slope failure” can be found, meaning the reef has sloped down, as it would happen in a landslide.
Rilwan noted there were some incidents in 1991 when dynamite was used to place the cables for a desalination plant and caused cracks in the reefs. The reef was damaged again near the Hulhumalé ferry terminal, he said, when the sea wall was being put in.
Rilwan said the barge that was transporting all the rocks to build the sea wall unloaded from this area, where the barge was anchored for a long period of time. This in itself, he said, could have worsened sloping of the reef, if not caused it.
From the air, the Maldives is a breath-taking vision to behold. White sand islands encircled by cerulean lagoons lie scattered in the navy sea. Delve beneath its turquoise waters and it is equally spectacular. A panoply of psychedelic fish, honeycomb moray eels, violet soldierfish and orange-striped triggerfish to name a few, flit among a treasure trove of coral.
But while the Maldives has grabbed headlines world over for being one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, fated to disappear beneath the waves if sea levels continue to rise, its underwater Shangri-La has received little press.
If the experts are right, however, the Maldives’ coral reefs are in terminal decline. A UN report entitled The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity released last week in Berlin, stated the world’s coral infrastructure and accompanying biodiversity would be the first ecosystem to go due to climbing greenhouse gases.
The message is critical; the reality is grim. “Corals are the foundation of the whole ecosystem, the building blocks of the reef itself,” said Guy Stevens, a British marine biologist at Four Seasons resort. “If the reef went, the Maldives would cease to exist, the islands themselves would be eroded and washed away. Without them, there’s nothing.”
Anke Hofmeister, a German marine biologist at Soneva Fushi resort is similarly pessimistic. “We can always argue that the coral reefs are recovering… but there’s definitely reason to think the reefs will disappear…this is the tipping point.”
Their fear is not unfounded. Anthropogenic carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases continue to drive global warming. Add into the mix, the local hazards of overfishing, an inadequate waste management system and population expansion, and corals have little chance of survival.
The vast colonies of coral, the bedrock of the Indian Ocean archipelago, are formed by the calcium carbonate secretions of tiny creatures called polyps. Living within the polyps, microscopic algae, zooxanthellae, take carbon dioxide for photosynthesise in return for food. As corals die, their calcium exoskeletons turn to limestone providing the perfect foundation for new generations of polyps to settle.
Yet while it has taken nature millennia to create the chain of 1,192 coral islands, it has taken humankind just over a hundred years to virtually wipe it out. The country’s fragile ecosystem lies on a knife-edge as concentrations of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere already exceed the safe threshold of 350 ppm.
Failure to curb emissions will condemn reefs to extinction, leading to dire economic, social and humanitarian consequences. In the Maldives, both tourism and fishing, which provides 71% of national employment and 49% of public revenue, will be hard hit. “Our whole existence, our livelihoods depends on reefs. It is a human rights issue because it will affect our right to life,” says Hussein Zahir, a senior reef ecologist at the country’s Marine Research Centre.
The loss of the Maldives’ coral ramparts will cripple the country’s ability to protect itself against extreme weather events caused by global warming. A government report estimates reefs absorb up to 90% of a wave’s force. As one of the lowest lying countries in the world, the Maldives is particularly vulnerable to waves, storm surges, cyclones and rises in sea level.
El Nino, the mass bleaching event of 1998, was the single most cataclysmic event in the history of coral degeneration in the Maldives. Up to 90% of the nation’s corals in some parts of the country were killed following the three-degree rise in ocean temperatures. Stressed out polyps evicted their colourful tenants – zooxanthellae – and were left a ghostly shade of white. For Stevens, the threat of one-off catastrophes such as El Nino pose one of the biggest threats to coral reefs.
Although a natural phenomenon, scientists predict that as sea temperatures rise, such incidents of large-scale bleaching will increase. “The frequency and magnitude are linked with global warming,” says Stevens. “As we warm up the earth, we are playing with the natural cycles, upsetting the equilibrium. Before a drought in one area of the world might result in a flood somewhere else. It was a see-sawing effect, but now there’s no balance.”
Hard on the heels of the tribulations faced by corals is another more critical threat. In June, the national science academies of 70 countries signed a statement warning that rising acidity in the world’s oceans would lead to a global catastrophe. The scientists said the oceans were more acidic than they had been for the past 800,000 years and urged ocean acidification to be put on the agenda at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December.
Oceans have absorbed around half of all carbon dioxide produced by humans since the industrial revolution, slowing global warming. But an overabundance of the greenhouse gas has tipped the balance. The resulting high levels of acidity impair the ability of some organisms to secrete calcium carbonate. This applies not only to polyps but a host of marine creatures, among them, phytoplankton – microscopic algae at the bottom of the food chain, responsible for producing half of the world’s oxygen. “It’s quite alarming if we think that it’s the base of the food chain,” says Verena Wiesbauer, a marine biologist at Water Solutions, an environmental consultancy firm in the Maldives.
A minute to midnight
Despite the doomsday scenario predicted by many scientists, marine biologists at the country’s luxury resorts are hard at work in search of stop-gap measures to buffer reefs from further climatic hardship. Coral propagation is one such technique. Fragments of coral are attached to a variety of structures from cement discs to electrified steel frames designed to encourage the birth of new colonies. The results so far have proved promising.
But while coral gardening may be an important conservation tool, most marine biologists agree it is not a large-scale solution. “There may be localised benefits from coral transplanting projects but in the long-term we need to concentrate on how to preserve what nature has given us,” says Hofmeister. “Ecosystems have been established over so many millions of years and you can’t just rebuild that.”
For now, the consensus is that coral reefs are teetering on the precipice of extinction. “It is one minute to 12,” says Wiesbauer. “The problem is that economy will always win and ecology will always lose.”
The climate change talks offer a glimmer of hope. If world leaders are able to put national interests aside and thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol then coral reefs may have a chance at survival.
Failure to commit to drastic cuts in greenhouse gases emissions will sound the death knell for coral reefs and spell the beginning of the end for other ecosystems. As a microcosm of the world, the plight of the Maldives and its fragile reef should be heeded, says Hofmeister. “We see the effects much much earlier here than other countries,” she says. “But it is only a matter of time before what happens here, happens to the rest of the world.”