Manmade reef gives Mother Nature a helping hand

Every day for weeks, American John Walch has made quirky cement balls he is convinced will sprout to life once they are dumped this month into Thailand’s coastal waters.

The project is not pollution, it is a form of environmental protection, rehabilitation and, ultimately preservation of part of Thailand’s spectacular natural heritage battered in the December 26 tsunami.

Thailand’s lush marine paradise lures millions of tourists annually with its gorgeous coral treasures, but it is aiming to improve on nature’s bounty by planting artificial reefs along the Andaman coast.

The kingdom’s coral has earned global renown, but as tourism has boomed in recent years, the natural reefs are under threat as many visitors take advantage of Thailand’s cheap and easy access to world-class dive sites.

“There is too much diving, the number of people visiting each particular dive site has exceeded the limit,” conservationist Phitul Panchaiyaphum of the department of marine and coastal resources explained on a boat to Raja island off the southern tip of Phuket.

In addition to pollution from the likes of plastic bags, fishing lines and nets, reefs have suffered from dive boats dropping anchor directly onto delicate coral. Divers themselves sometimes touch, break off or step on the reefs.

“We need to create more diving destinations,” he told reporters. “We are installing artificial reefs – concrete cubes or balls where fish will reside and coral can grow.”

Walch and his non-profit Reef Ball Foundation have put half a million of the cement structures into the sea in 50 countries.

At the request of a resort hotel under construction on Raja Island, Reef Ball began preparing a Thai project in September. Three months later disaster struck, with the tsunami barrelling into the coast.

A January assessment of the region’s coral found 13 per cent of reefs showed “high impact” from the waves – either broken or upturned coral, reefs smothered by sand, or damaged by debris swept into the sea by the huge waves.

“We’re all here to help this bay recover after the tsunami,” Walch, 56, said alongside a cement mixer set up at the site of the future hotel dominating Raja’s beach.

Over the next month Walch and his team of international volunteers plan to place 300 reefballs in the bay, creating five new reefs and one snorkel trail to sit alongside the bay’s lone natural reef. “It will provide new reefs for the increased number of tourists coming into this bay,” he said, nodding at the handful of visitors snorkelling out in the bay’s turquoise waters.

“You only have so many natural reefs to go to. This will help lessen the pressure by giving alternatives.”

Similar artificial reefs are planned for Kata, Patong and Kamala bays on Phuket, and on the island of Phi Phi, famed for its coral formations.

The projects have the backing of the prime minister’s office, the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the ministry of environment, all of which are eager to find ways to ease mounting pressure on the kingdom’s ecosystem.

Walch, who has worked on artificial reefs for three decades, said they will look splendid after only a few years, but conceded the true treasures of the sea belonged to nature. “We can never replace what Mother Nature has done,” he said, “but we can try and replicate it as good as we can.”

Source: China View