Corals facing ravages of climate change

The rare soft corals along UAE's coastline are at risk due to the impact of natural disasters and climate change that are threatening the fragile ecosystem in the region. A recent study, published in the Science journal this week, found that the shallow waters in the Arabian Sea between the Middle East and India, including the East Coast of the UAE, have been a global hotspot for coral reefs.

By Zoe Sinclair

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Published: Tue 5 Aug 2008, 2:03 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 5:00 PM

The study was titled 'Hopping Hotspots: Global Shifts in Marine Biodiversity." Geological movements have caused many reefs to shift over time, the study said and warned that climate change and the impact of humans were adding extra stress.

Emirates Diving Association Environmental Adviser Ibrahim Al Zu'ubi had no doubt that climate change and direct human factors were having a dramatic impact on the reefs.

"The oceans are getting warmer and the coral reefs are such a fragile ecosystem," Al Zu'ubi pointed out. "It's an early warning system of climate change."

The association's Environment and Research Department has been studying and writing about the reefs off the coast of Fujairah and Dibba for several years.

"We discovered there are soft corals unique to this area which are very rare," he said.

The Zayed University lecturer on Natural Science and Public Health, John Burt, said his research had found that the harsh conditions in which the region's coral survived made them not only unique but also vulnerable.

"They live in conditions that would normally be inhospitable to corals, with over a 25C change in temperature through the year as well as high salinity values. However, it is important to note that these corals are likely living at the margins of their tolerance, and that additional man-made or natural stressors could have significant impacts on these reefs," Burt warned.

He said the El Nino effect in 1998 had driven a mass die-off of corals throughout the Arabian Gulf.

"The El Nino-driven mass mortality of corals had the most wide-ranging impacts both in this area, as well as in other areas of the world," he said.

"More locally, there are concerns that the development of coastal ports, real estate projects, desalination facilities, and other related infrastructure may have impacts on coral reefs in the coming years," he emphasised.

The East Coast reefs were further ravaged by Cyclone Gonu which hit Oman on June 5, wiping out an average of 40 per cent of the coral reefs. In some areas, the damage was as high as 70 per cent of a reef, which subsequently led to coral bleaching.

Prior to Cyclone Gonu, research in 2005 indicated some causes for concern, Al Zu'ubi said.

More than 300 of the damaging crown-of-thorn starfish were found during monitoring and removed. One crown-of-thorn starfish can kill as much coral as an area of a football field in under one year, leading to the bleaching of coral reefs.

After the removal of a huge number of starfish, later checks showed that their population had abated to a large extent.

Direct human factors impacting the reef included the increased traffic of oil and goods tankers which were believed to fester crown-of-thorns population and had led to oil spills in the area.

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