'Boiling not warming': Marine life suffers as Thai sea temperatures hit record

TRAT, Thailand (Reuters): Aquatic life from coral reefs to fish in the Thailand's eastern gulf coast is suffering as sea surface temperatures hit record highs this month amid a regional heatwave, worrying scientists and local communities.

The once vibrant and colourful corals, about five metres (16 feet) underwater, have turned white in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching, a sign that their health was deteriorating, due to higher water temperatures, scientists say.

Sea surface temperatures in the Eastern Gulf of Thailand reached 32.73°C (90.91°F) earlier this month while underwater readings are slightly warmer, with dive computers showing around 33°C, data shows.

"I couldn't find a single healthy coral," said marine biologist Lalita Putchim of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) after completing a dive in the gulf coast.

"Almost all of the species have bleached, there's very little that's not affected."

The Trat archipelago is home to over 66 islands, with over 28.4 square kilometres (2,841 hectares) of coral reef, where Lalita has found that up to 30% of coral life was bleaching and 5% had already died.

If water temperatures do not cool, more coral will die, Lalita said.

"It's global boiling, not just global warming," she said.

Rising temperatures were also impacting other marine life and the livelihoods of local fishermen including Sommay Singsura.

In recent years, his daily catch of seafood has been dwindling. Previously he had been able to make up to 10,000 baht ($275) a day, but now sometimes he comes back empty handed.

"There used to be jackfish, short mackerel, and many others ... But now, the situation isn't good. The weather isn't like what it used to be," Sommay laments.

Coral reefs are both a food resource and habitat for marine life, as well as being natural barriers preventing coastal erosion, scientists say.

If bleaching causes marine life to decrease, fishermen will need to spend more to get their catch, which could see selling prices rise, said Sarawut Siriwong, the dean of faculty of Marine Technology at Burapha University.

"While this (coral bleaching) would affect food security, at the same time, their (community) income stability is also at stake," he said.

($1 = 36.2900 baht)

(Writing by Chayut Setboonsarng; Graphics by Pasit Kongkunakornkul; Editing by Lincoln Feast.) - Reuters

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