Australian experts have been called on to rescue coral reefs and fisheries damaged in the Indian Ocean tsunami.
A team led by the CSIRO will focus its attention on the Maldives, a string of 1,200 coral atolls off the south-west coast of India, which was devastated by tidal waves caused by a massive undersea earthquake off northern Indonesia.
Diving tourism and seafood are key industries for the Maldives, which is a popular holiday destination, particularly for Europeans.
The offer was made after President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, told Prime Minister John Howard during the ASEAN tsunami summit in Jakarta last week repairing the coral reefs was one of his country’s main priorities.
Mr Howard on Sunday announced the formation of the CSIRO-led team.
“Australia’s expertise in the management of coral reefs and fisheries will be used to help this tiny Indian Ocean nation repair its marine resources which are fundamental to the country’s economic life,” Mr Howard said.
The team is likely to include scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, James Cook University and the Reef Cooperative Research Centre.
The exact extent of the damage to Maldives’ reefs has yet to be determined, but it is known that when a tsunami passes, reef structures grind into each other, causing extensive damage.
Another problem is the amount of silt, sand and organic matter churned into the water, which can smother plant and marine life.
It is likely some parts of the reef could take hundreds of years to grow back, given that reef-forming coral grows only about half a centimetre a year.
The health of the reefs could in turn affect the size of fish stocks which rely on them.
Meanwhile, Mr Howard also announced on Sunday a team of 15 teachers would be sent to the Maldives later this month for the start of the school year.
Many schools were damaged or destroyed in the tsunami. The prime minister said the Maldives president had told him getting children back to school was also a government priority.