Maldives Reefs Face Catastrophic Decline

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Dead reef photographed in the Maldives in 2017 (Photo: Biosphere Expeditions)

Coral reefs in the Maldives are facing a catastrophic decline, reports Biosphere Expeditions after completing its eighth annual survey in the Indian Ocean archipelago.  The citizen science NGO reports that last year's coral bleaching has had a devasting impact on many reefs in Ari atoll and this has been compounded by over-fishing, sedimentation from tourist developments and crown of thorns infestations.

After completing this year's survey, Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, the expedition scientist and coral expert from the Marine Conservation Society, said: '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 [Ari Atoll] are where we’ve recorded the most catastrophic declines, as the intensity of human impact is highest in those areas.'

The team is collating the data it collected this year and will publish its report later this year. Last year it reported that some reefs such as Angaga and Kudafalhu were down to as little as five per cent live coral coverage after being hit by severe tropical storms in 2015. The Third Global Coral Bleaching Event in 2015 and 2016 had a widespread impact on the reefs surveyed with some reefs in the inner regions of the atoll down to seven per cent live coral coverage.

The survey team was also shocked to find a complete absence of large groupers across all the sites inspected.

Catherine Edsell, this year’s expedition leader, said they were particularly worried about the impact on the reefs of recent tourism developments in the area which has resulted in heavy sedimentation. She said: 'The dredging and dumping of millions of tonnes of sand smothers the corals in silt and kills them for miles around. As if the reefs aren’t having to cope with enough already!'

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The dramatic difference between a healthy reef in 2011 and a similar site in 2017 (Photo: Volker Lottmann, left, and Biosphere Expeditions, right)

Rafil Mohammed of Reef Check Maldives, a local NGO created as a result of Biosphere Expeditions’ placement programme, said:'What is concealed just below the surface in our country is a catastrophe already in progress.'

He added that rampant overfishing is another serious problem. He said: '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.'

A press release from Biosphere Expeditions after this year's survey pointed out the Maldives is dependent upon its coral reefs. It said: 'These coral "rainforests" are the very bedrock for coral islands, fisheries, the country’s culture, economy and well-being.'

Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, said: 'The Maldives are in the process of destroying this foundation of their survival as a nation.'

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Reef Check divers surveying the decline in July 2017 (Photo: Biosphere Expeditions)

Large-scale coral bleaching events occurred in 1997, 2010 and 2016 in the Maldives. Historic data show that over time (approximately 12 -15 years) coral can recover sufficiently to reach pre-bleaching abundance, but only if there are no other pressures such as sedimentation, ocean acidification and other human impacts on the natural environment.

Dr Hammer added: 'The world needs to look at what is happening in the Maldives behind the glossy tropical island paradise exterior, and unless the Maldives, its people and its government wake up to the reality of what sad and terrible things are also happening to their reefs, which are after all the basis for everything in the country, including the very country itself, 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.'





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