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Can Maldives reefs recover from El Nino?

Environmentalists say Maldives reefs may not bounce back from this year’s El Nino as fast as the government expects because of human stressors, such as dredging and land reclamation.



The reef of Villingili Island, just a few minutes away from Malé, has suffered damage from reclamation, dredging and harbor construction. It took another hit this year when warmer ocean temperatures, caused by the El Nino, killed a majority of its coral. On a recent dive, I found a graveyard on the island’s reef slope. A slimy layer of brown green algae covered the dead corals, while the few that still held out were bleached white. Some had startling spots of purple and pink, indicating a former more colorful appearance.

When we surfaced, my guide, veteran diver Hussain ‘Sendi’ Rasheed, said: “I take tourists out on dives almost everyday. I can tell you this is happening across the Maldives.”

The government, however, has downplayed the extent of bleaching, saying the onset of the rainy season would lead to a fall in temperatures, allowing stressed reefs to recover.

But environmentalists and divers doubt this. Reef resilience has been affected by activities such as  large scale dredging and land reclamation projects, as well as practices such as sand pumping at resorts, they say.

Indian Ocean temperatures have been a centigrade warmer than usual since the month of February.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a bleaching warning for Maldives coral in April, when surface temperatures reached and stayed constant at 31 degrees Centigrade. The El Nino has now weakened, and temperatures are expected to return to normal in the next few weeks.

About 35 percent of corals in the northern and central parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed by bleaching, according to scientists. This is the most extreme case of mass bleaching ever recorded, they have said.

In the Maldives, divers I spoke to said the current bleaching event could be as severe as that of 1998, which reportedly destroyed over 90 percent of Maldives’ coral cover.

But Nizam Ibrahim, an official at the Marine Research Center, said the extent of the damage would be lesser “because of the timing of the bleaching this year is coinciding with Hulhangu [southwest] monsoon and we believe that the sea surface temperature will decrease back to monthly average soon.”

Both Sendi and the Divers Association of Maldives disagree.

“I lived through the 1998 El Nino,” Sendi said. “The situation is already much worse.”

The extent of the damage is still unknown. The last published report on coral bleaching from the MRC dates back to 2010. Divers and concerned members of the public, however, have been posting pictures of this year’s bleaching event on social media.

Meanwhile, an environmentalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works for the government, said: “Even if coral bleaching is not as severe as that of 1998, coral reefs across the Maldives are under severe pressure. In 1998, reclamation, dumping sewage, dredging and pollution were not as prevalent.

“The 1998 event was seen as a one-off event. But bleaching was also seen in 2006, 2010, 2015 and now this year. We also saw a major outbreak of crown of thorns in the Maldives, a coral predator, this year.”

Others say the lack of nation-wide assessments on the status of Maldives reefs and stressors makes it hard to comment on reef resilience, but many expressed concern over what they called inaction by the government,

A marine biologist who previously worked at the MRC said: “If the MRC really regarded the issue of coral bleaching as a national issue, then why is it not being addressed at the policy level?”

The MRC, in an email, said it has set up a National Coral Bleaching Taskforce to advise the government. The group has asked resorts to “possibly delay or suspend” activities that may affect reefs.

This is not enough, said Maeed Zahir of Eco Care.

“We’ve been seeing bleaching all over Maldives, but land reclamation projects are still ongoing. Why can’t those projects be suspended to minimize the stress on corals?”

The regulatory body, the Environment Protection Authority, must be an independent entity, Maeed said, adding that the agency is now susceptible to political influence as it currently functions under the environment ministry.

The dismissal of the agency’s vocal director (later reinstated) and the transfer of its powers to regulate resort-sector construction had rendered it toothless, he continued.

“We recognize that development is necessary, that harbors are necessary, but the government needs to employ sustainable development practices. We have to stop mass land reclamation and focus on decentralization. We need an independent EPA and a parliamentary committee dedicated to environment matters.

“Our economy relies on biodiversity sales through the tourism and fisheries sector. Every economist knows that you must protect your assets.”

Reclaiming land for resort construction and sales is a major pledge of President Abdulla Yameen’s administration.

Back on Villingili, environmental group Save the Beach said warmer temperatures had killed a coral nursery they planted to restore the island’s reef.

“It’s like we are in the midst of a funeral,” a member said.

Additional writing by Zaheena Rasheed