Divers have two weeks to rescue coral

Volunteer divers only have about two weeks in which to rescue coral reefs battered by December’s tsunami. Having been buried in sand for nearly six weeks, it is now a race against time, experts say.

“By the middle of February, all the coral toppled by the tsunami will have died, meaning recovery efforts would be futile,” said Niphon Phongsuwan, a marine biologist and expert on coral from the Phuket Marine Biologist Centre (PMBC).

Mr Niphon headed a coral recovery operation at Koh Pai, about 5km north of Phi Phi Don island on Tuesday. The 1.16-square km coral reef around the island was one of the spots hardest hit by the tsunami. Between 30-50% of the reef had been severely damaged, he said.

“However, so far only a fifth of the damaged coral reefs have died. Partially-damaged colonies could be saved if they are returned to the correct position in time,” he said.

Divers are not normally allowed to touch coral because they can easily be injured by some poisonous species, such as fire coral. Such practice can also be harmful to a fragile exotic marine structure.

Volunteers who joined the PMBC’s two-day coral repair operation were required to wear gloves because it is their job to carefully lift or roll coral back to their original positions.

Eleven volunteer divers on Tuesday rescued about 1,200 colonies of coral in the 7m-deep waters off Koh Pai. However, repairing such reefs was a difficult task and movement of the coral ideally needs to be carried out under the supervision of marine biologists. Divers must know how to identify coral by species, and be able to tell whether colonies are alive or dead, Mr Niphon said.

“If you don’t see any pollen on the upper surface of the coral that means it has already died, so there is no need to return it to its original position,” Mr Niphon said during a briefing for five foreign volunteer divers at the start of the recovery operation.

“In the case of damaged table coral, small pieces need to be placed on top of the main living part, allowing it to gradually meld. However, you have to ensure that the coral is the same species and from the same colony, otherwise they may kill each other. Coral that has only been damaged slightly should not be touched, since they will naturally recover,” he said.

“By doing this, I believe the damaged reefs will fully recover in three to four years. The important thing is that tourism must be banned around these diving sites during the recovery period,” he said.

According to the PMBC and university marine biologists, the Dec 26 tsunami caused coral reefs to turn over, break and collapse on sliding sandy slopes. Some of the coral was smothered by sand sediment and covered with debris or garbage following the tsunami. However, the overall impact on coral reefs was small.

“Only 13% of 174 coral sites surveyed had been badly hit. The tsunami’s effect on Thailand’s coral reefs has so far been less than during depression storms and outbreaks of the crown of thorns starfish in the 1980s, or the coral bleaching phenomenon in 2003,” Mr Niphon said.

Areas where coral reefs were worst hit by the tsunami are Ranong, Surin islands, Similan islands and Phi Phi island. Coral reefs around Satun, Phuket, Trang and Phangnga were left virtually untouched by the disaster.

The PMBC would like to do more to help the coral over the next two weeks, but we lack sufficient funds to organise diving trips for volunteer divers,” Mr Niphon said, adding that the PMBC had not received funds from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) or diving organisations.

“TAT, which has received a large budget from the government to revive tourism, should provide more funding for the efforts to restore coral reefs, since diving is critical to the country’s tourism industry,” said Tia, a volunteer diver from Scotland.

Source: Bangkok Post

Image: BBC News/Kevin Rowland