Thu, Feb 19, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Government and public must help save corals

By Liou Pei-pai 劉培柏

A RECENTLY PUBLISHED report on the status of Taiwanese coral reefs last year by an environmental protection group found that a “black disease” is spreading through the coral in the waters off Green Island and Orchid Island. This disease has killed a substantial number of coral reefs by covering them with a massive amount of an Okinawan sponge named Terpios hoshinota.

Many people have called on the government to pass a law to protect the reefs. However, international studies warned long ago that the world’s coral reefs were facing extinction because of a variety of human and natural factors. Ocean pollution, destructive fishing practices, climate change and frequent human activity pose a dire threat to coral reef ecosystems worldwide. A 2006 study showed that a quarter of coral reefs on the planet have died due to these factors.

If global warming continues as expected, coral reefs could disappear in 30 to 50 years.

Coral reefs abound in the waters near Indonesia and the Philippines. Yet for easy collection, local fishermen use cyanide or dynamite to stun live fish breeding in coral reefs and then smash the reefs apart to pull the fish out from the crevices where they hide. This has caused serious damage to the marine landscape.

Taiwan is not much better either, as every now and then fishermen or divers are found destroying coral reefs. Less than 1 percent of coral reefs worldwide are legally protected from such practices.

Coral reefs are structures formed by tiny marine organisms called “coral polyps,” which normally live in shallow water at temperatures between 18˚C and 25˚C. The water needs to be clean in order to prevent pollutants from clogging the polyp’s digestive system. Coral lives on the “rocky” structures they produce and feed on unicellular algae.

The warming of the oceans accelerates the organisms’ metabolism and they generate a large amount of oxygen. The coral polyps start suffering oxygen intoxication and spit out the algae. This bleaches them white and leaves them unable to grow. If the water stays warm, the corals will eventually die.

In 1998, the strong El Nino warmed waters from Africa through Indonesia and the Philippines and out into the Pacific Ocean, including Taiwan’s southern waters. Many reefs suffered from bleaching. Marine biologists said that it would take at least 20 to 50 years for the reefs to completely recover. Water temperatures in the tropical Northern Hemisphere have increased by 1˚C per decade since 1984 and El Ninos and severe storms have become increasingly frequent. If this continues, coral reefs will suffer from bleaching every three or four years, and in the near future they will be wiped out.

Of course it is important that domestic environmentalist groups work to save coral reefs. But if the reefs are endangered because of human activity, the government should pass laws to prevent it from happening. If it is caused by natural factors such as the Terpios hoshinota sponge covering the reefs, then maybe only God can help.

Liou Pei-pai is a volunteer guide at a mangrove reserve and a veterinarian.


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