Published: Tuesday July 24, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday May 30, 2013 MYT 4:31:21 AM

Reefs at risk

The world’s coral epicentre is in danger.

REEFS all around the world are in trouble – but more so those in the region known as the Coral Triangle, which encompasses reefs in South-East Asia and the Pacific and is considered the centre of coral diversity in the world.

A report shows that over 85% of reefs in the six countries that make up the Coral Triangle – Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste – are directly threatened by local human activities, substantially more than the global average of 60%.

The document Reefs At Risk Revisited In The Coral Triangle, released recently at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia, points to these threats: over-fishing, destructive fishing methods, pollution from the land, and coastal development. The impact of these threats is worsened by coral bleaching, which is triggered by rising ocean temperatures.

The Coral Triangle contains nearly 30% of the world’s coral reefs and hosts 76% of all known coral species and over 3,000 species of fish, which is twice the number found anywhere else in the world. More than 130 million people living in the region rely on reef ecosystems for food, employment, and revenue from tourism.

Despite its immense biodiversity and economic importance, only 16% of the region’s coral reefs are protected as marine reserves – which is considerably lower than the global average of 28% – and only 1% of this is effectively managed.

The scene is especially dismal in Malaysia. It might have 93 marine protected areas but these cover only 7% of its reefs. And only five of these reserves (encompassing just 1% of the country’s reefs) are rated as effective at reducing fishing pressure. Over 90% of the country’s reefs are found in the coasts of Sabah. About 540 species of hard corals have been identified in the country so far, as well as 925 species of fish.

The report states that nearly all reefs in Malaysia are threatened by local human activities, with more than 40% under high and very high threat. Over-fishing is the most widespread threat, affecting about 97% of reefs in Malaysia. Destructive fishing, such as blast and cyanide fishing, threatens 85% of Malaysia’s reefs, particularly those in Sabah and Sarawak.

Watershed-based pollution (such as runoffs from coastal development and sediment-laden outflows from rivers) affects 30% of the reefs, especially those off Peninsular Malaysia. Reefs are also suffering from marine pollution and coastal development.

The Philippines is the most vulnerable to reef degradation because of its highly threatened reefs, high economic dependence on reefs, and low capacity to adapt to the loss of goods and services provided by reefs.

Among the recommendations offered in the report for protecting reefs in the Coral Triangle, the most urgent is to reduce local pressures from over-fishing, destructive fishing, damaging coastal development, and polluting runoffs from land.

The report authors say healthy reefs will be more likely to survive the negative effects of climate change, such as coral bleaching or reduced coral growth rates due to increased ocean acidity. Tackling the local threats first will buy time for the reefs until the global community can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Across the Coral Triangle region, coastal communities depend on coral reefs for food, livelihood and protection from waves during storms, but the threats to reefs in this region are incredibly high,” says Lauretta Burke, senior associate at World Resources Institute (WRI) and a lead author of the report.

“Reefs are resilient. They can recover from coral bleaching and other impacts – particularly if other threats are low. The benefits reefs provide are at risk, which is why concerted action to mitigate threats to reefs across the Coral Triangle region is so important.”

The report was developed by the US-based WRI in collaboration with USAID Coral Triangle Support Partnership, a consortium of WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, that is assisting the six Coral Triangle governments in implementing their regional and national Coral Triangle Initiative plans of action.

Founded by the six countries in 2009, the Coral Triangle Initiative intends to improve fisheries management in the region, build a network of marine protected areas, help the local people adapt to climate change, and protect endangered marine species. – Tan Cheng Li

Related Story: Research reveals future of world's coral reefs bleak

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