The images of skeletal white coral are beautiful but haunting. The world’s reefs are now facing their worst bout of bleaching to date. Swathes of brilliant white fingers extend across the ocean floor. These are the stark signs of an underwater world under severe stress.
The bleaching is the result of a spike in ocean temperatures that push reefs to their thermal limit.
In the Maldives, we have begun to see the beginnings of a bleaching event not witnessed since 1998. With 25% of all marine life depending on healthy reefs, we face one of the great ecological challenges of this century.
But what is happening in our Indian Ocean archipelago is part of a global event - the combined product of rising ocean temperatures and an intense El-nino warming cycle. These cyclical weather spikes have become increasingly frequent in our climate change age. In February 2016 ocean temperatures were 1.35ºc above its average. Other nations are also suffering across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with mortality rates on some reefs hitting above 20%.
This bleaching event is global warming manifest. Marine biologists and climate scientists are unanimous in their analysis of this phenomenon. They found the conditions driving the current bleaching – warmer, more acidic seas - are “virtually impossible” without human influence on the climate.
The outlook seems bleak. But we have seen these events in the past. Fortunately, reefs have proved more resilient than marine-biologists once thought. After the mass bleaching events of 1998 in the Maldives, coral reefs made impressive recoveries. That recuperation process was swift. Within ten to fifteen years most reefs were recovered.
Luckily some of our 2000 plus reefs remain in excellent condition. But make no mistake. This latest event, and prevailing climate conditions, means the current situation is extremely concerning.
The first tasks for governments and international agencies are to monitor the situation closely. We cannot provide solutions without knowing the type and extent of the damage. The Maldives government was well aware of the current episode of bleaching this year. We have been closely monitoring the situation through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) coral predictions and field assessments. The Marine Research Center and the Environment Protection Agency together with the IUCN conducted pre-bleaching surveys at permanent monitoring sites to determine conditions. And once bleaching takes place, we continue to observe affected sites.
On a local level, we must continue to mitigate the effect of human activity of these delicate ecosystems. Our government is increasing protection of affected areas and the scope Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) will be markedly expanded in light of this recent bleaching event. That means stringent EIAs on new hotel developments and limiting terrestrial runoff and agricultural pollutants - proven enemies of coral reefs. Enforcement of regulations on fishing and harvesting of reef areas must also continue. In the Maldives, pole and line fishing is written into our fishing industry’s DNA and we only hope this method of fishing is adopted much faster in other nations than we are currently witnessing.
The stresses are not just on the natural world. We see every day that climate change and economic hardship are overlapping. Cruelly, it is the world’s poorest that are on the front line of these dramatic shifts in global temperatures and weather patterns. It is no different for coral reefs. 500 million people rely on the reefs for their livelihoods across the world. They underpin economies through tourism and fishing. If we allow our reefs to fade away, the ramifications for thousands of communities are unimaginable.
The bigger picture is where we find the answers. We need to strike at the catalyst of the bleaching, the scourge of man-made global warming. It starts with nations ratifying the Paris treaty. The Maldives helped steer these talks. We have already ratified the Paris agreement in our Parliament. It is legally binding. Our message to the rest of the world is simple. Hurry up. Let’s get on with it. Ratification is the first major step towards real, concerted action.
This action, in the form of real, tangible steps to save our reefs, must begin now. Water quality does not improve overnight. When we repair forests and rejuvenate land, it takes decades for the results of newly planted trees to materialise. Coral reefs – the rainforests of the seas – are no different.
The Maldives is a coral reef nation. The thought that the next generation of Maldivians may not witness the kaleidoscopic reefs that line their country is heartbreaking. This is their home, and these reefs are for them as well as the millions that we welcome from across the world every year.
Clearly, a new environmental catastrophe is unraveling, one that is affecting scores of small island states, as well as communities in nations as large and diverse as Australia to Indonesia or Myanmar. There are solutions, and these beautiful marine paradises have shown remarkable resilience before. But for swathes of the world’s coral reefs, it seems we may have crossed the Rubicon. A Chinese proverb runs, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”. If we needed a reminder of the urgency of our task in saving our planet, it is the tragedy unfolding only a few feet below the surface of our oceans.