UAE: Divers cull CoTS outbreak at two coral reef sites

Crown-of-thorns starfish are predators that can devastate coral reefs if their population is left unchecked

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Supplied photo
Supplied photo

Published: Tue 23 Apr 2024, 3:09 PM

Last updated: Tue 23 Apr 2024, 3:12 PM

UAE divers helped cull a crown-of-thorns sea stars (CoTS) outbreak that was destroying coral reefs on the East Coast. A team of marine biologists and volunteers conducted the culling operation to reduce the population of CoTS across two sites off the coast of Khor Fakkan.

During the exercise, a total of 118 CoTS were removed from the reefs and taken to the University of Khorfakkan for sampling before being destroyed.


Coral reefs are diverse and vibrant ecosystems that provide crucial habitats for marine life and offer essential services to coastal communities.

However, these delicate ecosystems face numerous threats, including climate change, pollution, and overfishing. Among these threats is also the CoTS, “a voracious predator that can devastate coral reefs if its population is left unchecked”.


CoTS are one of the largest sea stars in the world, “characterised by their numerous venomous spines and their ability to consume large amounts of coral tissue”, said the Emirates Diving Association (EDA).

An adult CoTS has the capacity to devour approximately 10 square metres of coral annually.

“While CoTS can play a natural role in reef ecosystems by controlling coral growth, outbreaks of these sea stars can have severe consequences for coral reefs, leading to extensive coral mortality and habitat degradation.”

The culling initiative was led by Dr Henrik Stahl, Dean of the College of Marine Science and Aquatic Biology at the University of Khorfakkan.

The operation followed extensive surveys of two coral reef sites in Khorfakkan: Martini Bay and Hole-in-the-Wall. The surveys revealed alarming findings: 70 CoTS over an area of 2,250 square metres at Martini Bay, and 16 over 2,550 square metres at Hole-in-The-Wall.

Dr Stahl underscored the importance of scientific research and community engagement in safeguarding the health of coral reef ecosystems.

“The problem of the CoTS outbreak was initially raised when concerned divers from the UAE’s East Coast brought it to our attention. In partnership with the Emirates Diving Association, we quickly surveyed the sites and established that an outbreak was in fact occurring. This was the first documented CoTS outbreak event on the East Coast of the UAE.”

Ibrahim Al Zu’bi, co-founder of the EDA, said: “CoTS can pose a significant threat to the UAE’s beautiful coral reefs in the event of outbreaks such as this. So we are extremely grateful for the support of DP World for these initiatives to protect the UAE’s ocean environment. This is a prime example of how we strive to collaborate with leading local institutions such as the University of Khor Fakkan, and volunteering groups such as the Dubai Voluntary Dive Team, to achieve our mission.”

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