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Small movements with great impacts: we CAN protect our Coral Reefs!

*An interview with Julian Hyde, Reef Check Malaysia*

What does Reef Check Malaysia do and how do you help protect the corals in Malaysia?
Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) works with a wide range of stakeholders to improve management of coral reefs, contributing to long term sustainability and reef conservation.

Our focus is to reduce local impacts to reefs. To do this, we conduct surveys to monitor coral reef health, and we use the results of surveys to help to improve management. This can include working with local communities, dive and snorkel operators, resorts and government agencies to find out what is harming reefs, and then take action to reduce the damage.

Corals in Malaysia are expected to bleach in 2016, what exactly is coral bleaching and how does it affect the corals?
coral - WMCorals are actually tiny animals (called polyps) that live together in colonies. They secrete a calcium carbon skeleton that forms the solid structure of the reef, creating extensive habitats for many marine species. The polyp has microscopic algae living in its tissues, which, like plants, use sunlight to produce sugars. These are mainly passed to the coral host and provide it with most of its food. The algae also give the coral its colour.

When the coral is stressed, it expels the algae, which has two consequences. First, the coral polyp itself without the algae is colourless, so the calcium carbonate skeleton (which is white) is revealed, giving the reef a bleached appearance. Second, the coral loses its food source, meaning it is living on a starvation diet. It can survive in this condition for several weeks, but if the cause of stress remains for too long, the coral will eventually die. If the stress goes away soon enough, the coral attracts the algae back into its tissues and will survive.

A number of factors can cause stress and bleaching on a small, localized scale. These include pollution, sedimentation and disease. However, the most serious cause of stress is warm water, which can cause bleaching on a regional or even international scale. Corals normally live in a very narrow range of temperatures, and an increase of just 1-2oC sustained for several weeks is sufficient to cause stress that can lead to bleaching. The seas around South East Asia are currently experiencing an extended period of warm water, caused by the El Nino-La Nina weather pattern. Water temperatures around the region are higher than normal and there has already been extensive bleaching in the Pacific. The warm water is now moving towards South East Asia and some forecasts show that this will cause extensive bleaching of coral reefs around Malaysia. If it extends to several weeks, this could result in widespread coral mortality which in turn will reduce the productivity and attractiveness of the reefs, possibly affecting the economies of those who rely on coral reefs for their livelihoods.

As a tourist how we can help to protect the coral reefs?
Reef Check Boatmen Training 2015 03 - WMEveryone can help. We divide threats to coral reefs into two broad types: global threats and local threats. The global threats are things like global warming and ocean acidification, about which we can do nothing at the local level as reef managers. However, what we can all do is help to reduce the local threats, all those other smaller impacts that happen to coral reefs every day around us. This will in turn ensure reefs are as healthy as possible, and more likely to withstand or recover quickly from the big global threats. Local threats include physical damage caused by divers and snorkelers hitting or standing on reefs, or from boat anchors; pollution from sewage or oil spills; over-fishing, which destabilizes the reef ecosystem; and litter, which adds to pollution and can cause physical damage to corals. All these are easily avoided, which will contribute to improving reef health.

So as a tourist visiting a coral reef area, you can help by following a few simple rules: don’t stand on or touch coral; don’t buy marine souvenirs or fish in “no-take” areas; and don’t litter. You can also help by using resorts or dive operators or snorkel guides who are following environmentally friendly practices, such as Green Fins or Responsible Tourism systems. These are people who have already taken steps to reduce their impacts; you can help them achieve more.

It might feel like small things, but if everyone does it, the impact is huge!