x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Concern over future of UAE's coral reefs

Over the past two decades a combination of natural and man-made events has nearly wiped out the UAE's "Acropora" coral reefs.

They formed beautiful underwater reefs with their spiky, red and orange-brown coral reef branches offering shelter and food for vibrant sea life.

Over the past two decades a combination of natural and man-made events nearly wiped out the UAE's "Acropora" coral reefs.

According to Professor Morgan Pratchett the branching corals of the genus Acropora may be among the first to go extinct from local reefs.

"In the past, Acropora would have been the dominant coral across the entire [Arabian] Gulf," said Professor Pratchett.

Professor Pratchett, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at Australia's James Cook University, is one of 15 researchers attending a week-long workshop on coral reefs, organised by the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Institute.

Scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have spent the week diving reefs in Abu Dhabi and Fujairah measuring underwater temperatures.

Healthy reefs prefer water no warmer than 27°C, though corals in the UAE have somewhat acclimatised, with measurements collected ranging from 34°C on the West Coast to 29°C on the East Coast. However, scientists fear that further temperature increases caused by climate change may be too much for the reefs to bear.

The Acropora genus were wiped out from reefs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi due to high temperatures between 1996 and 1998.

On the Eastern Coast, cyclone Gonu in 2007 and a prolonged algal bloom which started the following year has caused severe damage. The team did not find "a single recruit of Acropora".

"There are still large healthy colonies, especially around Delma Island, but even there we failed to find any new baby Acropora, which would be necessary to replace the existing colonies as they grow old and die," he said.

While the full impact of climate change is yet to be felt, reefs in the country face more immediate challenges - pollution from an increasing number of human coastal settlements and from activities to further develop the coastline.

"All of these things are stacking up on top of each other and compound the problem," said Professor Pratchett.

Aided by a host of government agencies such as the Ministry of Environment and Water, the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and Fujairah Municipality, the research team is interested in much more than the faith of Acropora coral. The study aims to determine the growth rate of coral and fish in general, as well as measure the impact of high water temperatures on the feeding of fish and on coral energy reserves.

"In the next two years, we will be able to provide a monumental amount of data important to the management of coral reefs in the country," said John Burt, assistant professor of biology at NYUAD.

Prof Burt and the team laid out permanent transects at reefs near Delma, Saadiyat Island and Ras Ghanada in Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Dibba and Al Aqah marine protected areas on the East Coast.

vtodorova@thenational.ae