KUWAIT CITY // A group of Kuwaiti divers has reported bleaching in more than 90 per cent of the country's coral reefs - a sign that the coral is either sick or dead. "This is really bad," Dari al Huwail, a member of Kuwait Dive Team, said. "Before Ramadan, it seemed normal; there were signs of bleaching, but they were not unusual, at least to me." After the holy month, "we went diving for a conservation project and were shocked to discover how massive the bleaching was".
When team members dived at a reef near Umm al Maradim island, they noticed most of the brightly coloured corals had turned a sickly white. When two teams of divers inspected Kuwait's seven other major reefs this week, they realised that the whole country was affected. "We're not scientific experts, we don't have a background in marine biology, but we are professional in documenting what we see," Mr al Huwail said. The team said it was ready to collaborate with international experts to discover why the corals have turned white and try to solve the problem.
Ali Haidar, the deputy director general of the government's Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement on Monday that the bleaching was probably caused by rising sea temperatures. Sea temperatures around Kuwait have soared to 35°C this year. About 20 per cent of the coral reefs are dead and 60 per cent "are affected and may return to their normal condition depending on their surrounding natural conditions", Mr Haidar said.
Bleaching occurs when the pigmented algae that live in the coral's tissue are expelled, revealing the coral's bright white skeleton. Without the algae, the coral begins to starve. Thomas Goreau, the president of Global Reef Alliance, a non-governmental organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dedicated to studying and restoring coral reefs, said the reefs have suffered from massive bleaching all over the world this year.
"This year is certainly the hottest year in history," Mr Goreau said. "This is a result of global warming." If the sea exceeds its average temperature during the hottest time of year by 1°C for one month, the coral will turn white, Mr Goreau said. If the temperature remains high for two months or increases to 2°C above the average for one month, the corals will die. The phenomenon has been discovered in the Gulf because Kuwait Dive Team actively surveys the country's marine environment, Mr Goreau said. He expects coral reefs in Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Iran have all undergone a similar change, but the damage has not been reported yet.
Mr Goreau, who has been tracking global sea temperatures by satellite since 1982 and visiting endangered reefs all over the world, said the bleaching began in the southern hemisphere this year. Coral reefs in Mauritius were the first to bleach and others were affected as the location of maximum temperature migrated across the globe. Coral reefs in the Seychelles and the Maldives were next to feel the effect of the extraordinary heat, then Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. Waters off the Philippines and the Caribbean have also faced unusually high temperatures this year, Mr Goreau said.
When coral reefs die, the sea loses the majority of its marine diversity and fish will disappear in search of other areas to feed and serve as a nursery for their young. Dead reefs will not absorb wave energy or replenish sand, causing nearby beaches to slowly erode. "Coral reefs are the most fragile ecosystem there is," Mr Goreau said. "They can be killed by water that is too hot, cold, salty, fresh, muddy or has an excess of nutrients. Boats' anchors pose a physical threat to the delicate reefs, as does dredging to build islands and ports or to clear lanes for shipping."
Scientists are unsure why coral reefs have grown in the Gulf despite extreme temperatures, saline and muddy waters, and high levels of pollution from sewage and the petrochemicals industry. Mr Goreau said if researchers were given the opportunity to study why the region's corals are so resilient, it might be an opportunity to propagate them to other parts of the world. "These are exceptional corals because they've been pushed beyond conditions that no other corals could survive, but now they've been pushed beyond their limit."