THE CONSERVATION COLUMN: Coral reefs - mysterious, vital and vulnerable
With Christmas just around the corner, and chilly winter days upon us, you may well be day-dreaming of tropical islands, palm trees and sun-drenched beaches. But as a diver, you’ll most likely be more interested in what lies beneath those crystal clear turquoise waters. In this blog, Earthwatch scientist Dr David Smith shares insights into his work on the coral reefs of the idyllic Seychelles islands, and his team’s efforts to understand how environmental changes could alter these stunning natural structures forever.
Coral reefs support more marine life than any other ocean ecosystem, and are not surprisingly a favourite haunt for many divers. But as well as being physically and biologically spectacular, coral reefs also support the livelihoods of over half a billion people.
What is more, this number is expected to double in coming decades while the area of high quality reef is expected to half. In combination with the very real threat of climate change, which could lead to increased seawater temperatures and ocean acidification, we start to arrive at some quite frightening scenarios.
Scientists are putting much effort into increasing understanding of how reefs of the future may look and function. Functionality in this sense also refers to the quality of services reefs may provide to dependent communities, such as supporting fisheries and protecting coastlines against wave action and erosion.
For the past five years members of the Coral Reef Research Unit in the Seychelles have joined forces with Earthwatch. Many enthusiastic, dedicated and, some would say, lucky volunteers, have examined the health and diversity of coral reefs of these islands.
Vital research to help understand and protect coral reefs
Over five years of study we have comprehensively surveyed three atolls and islands of the Seychelles. Our research goals were quite simple – to determine the conservation status of reefs in the region, to identify the key threats to them and most importantly to identify conservation management actions that could be implemented to best protect this incredibly important resource for future generations.
One of the greatest threats that reefs face, apart from over-fishing of certain key species that are important to their function, is the impact of environmental conditions that are significantly beyond the norm. The best known of these environmental anomalies is El Niño, a cyclical climatic phenomenon that in some parts of the world can significantly increase sea water temperatures and light intensities. During 1998 the biggest El Niño ever recorded hit the Western Indian Ocean and seawater temperatures rose by 2-3oC for a period of a few months. In the Seychelles up to 90% of coral reefs died as a result of this relatively small temperature rise.
Increases in temperature coupled with increases in light intensity cause coral bleaching. However coral bleaching simply refers to loss of coral colour and is not always associated with dramatic climatic events. Many species of corals go through seasonal changes in colour and such changes are due to normal processes they undergo to fine-tune their physiology to best suit environmental conditions.
Researchers hard at work
More resilient than we thought?
So arguably, far from being sensitive, corals that partially bleach, or change their colour but do not die, could be amongst the most tolerant rather than most vulnerable species, as they may be better equipped to adapt to environmental stress.
However, when environmental conditions change as rapidly and dramatically as they did during the 1998 El Niño event, many coral colonies are so affected that a bleached coral rapidly becomes a dead one.
The questions that our team of researchers and volunteers in the Seychelles are now addressing are:
• Which species are most tolerant and which are most sensitive to sea temperature rise?
• Is the sensitivity of the most vulnerable species altered by the normal conditions in which they grow – or, put another way, are there any natural environments or sites that protect corals from the impacts of dramatic environmental change?
Our research team have carried out many hundreds of dives in the Seychelles region. We have demonstrated that some coral colonies comprising certain species are much older than the 13 years that have elapsed since the 1998 El Nino event, whereas other corals, particularly the numerous branching species, are all much younger and have established themselves in the system since 1998.
Clearly corals display a range of tolerance to environmental change. The next phase of our research took our teams to crystal clear waters, deeper reef systems, granitic boulder reefs and eerie turbid lagoons. Perhaps surprisingly it was in the low visibility lagoons where we first found examples of “old” colonies of the most sensitive species.
When fragments of these colonies were exposed to altered environmental conditions, as in previous experiments, they appeared to be tolerant rather than sensitive. This was one of those rare and exciting ‘Eureka!’ moments in science –We had found that under the right environmental conditions, corals that are otherwise very susceptible to changes in climate can increase their ability to resist environmental change.
But why is this so important?
Well, we can utilise these areas that afford protection to the corals to establish Ecological Refuge Environments that could enable us to protect the most sensitive species from future environmental change. This is the direction that conservation research surely has to take. Much effort has been put into understanding species biology and climate change, but how do we now use this vast knowledge to protect the Earth’s natural systems?
Thanks to the dedicated team of diving Earthwatch volunteers and the support from our sponsors we are now starting to ensure that we at least give these incredibly beautiful, important but vulnerable systems the best chance to survive.
If you have good dive skills, a passion for the natural world, an interest in conserving coral reefs for future generations, and are happy to put up with the tough job of living on a tropical island in the Seychelles, then please do visit the Earthwatch website to find out how you can join us.
For more information about Dave Smith’s research on coral communities of the Seychelles, visit the project page on the Earthwatch website
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