Sunday, 15 September 2013

An Artificial reef for the Andaman Sea. By Dr. Gerry Goeden

Those readers who have followed my reports can’t have missed the point that I am deeply concerned about the state of the ocean. Things that we depend on are failing fast; our ‘ship’ is sinking and it seems that there is little that we can do.
World Ocean Day is the 8th of June and on the tiny island of Langkawi, Malaysia they will be announcing one way that we can help to keep our ‘ship’ afloat and get back on course.

 Most marine organisms seek out shelter.

Research over the last ten years has shown that coastal ecosystems play a critical part in removing carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuel and responsible for most of our global warming problems. In fact, these systems and seawater itself have removed about half of all the carbon dioxide we produced since the Industrial Revolution. One of the most important coastal carbon sinks is the coral reef, locking up green house gases in thousands of tons of new coral skeletons each year. 

But sadly the growth of coral has been shown to be impeded by overfishing. That’s right; removing too many fish alters the reef food web and corals are squeezed out by seaweeds. Living corals all over the globe are now being lost at 1% each year and that has been going on for the last 40 years.

A sad example of the impact of man on this devastating relationship is found on the reefs of S.E. Asia where 80 percent are now endangered and fish stocks are collapsing. Fisheries estimates in Malaysia indicate that more than 90 percent of the resource has been taken. The World Development Report 2010 - Development and Climate Change, shows that rebuilding fish stocks can both improve resilience to climate change and increase economic returns to the fishing industry by US$50 billion per year. 

Attempts to slow reef damage and accelerate fish production by creating artificial reefs have gone on since the 1950’s with limited success. Worst was a used tire reef off Florida, USA that became an environmental disaster when two million tires broke loose and smashed into natural reefs. 

Other artificial reef structures included discarded ships, trains, and rubble. Of those reefs that seemed to be working, most have remained barren.
In contrast to what has been little more than dumping our garbage into the sea and calling it an artificial reef, the “Reef Ball” has been manufactured and distributed under license by The Reef Ball Foundation (Todd Barber) since 1993. Of the nearly 600,000 made, many have been used in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Reports of “Reef Ball” success vary.

 Reef balls provide a place for other organisms to settle.
“Reef Balls” are spheres, very uniform in shape, with little place for small animals to hide. "Structurally complex reefs provide nooks and crannies for thousands of species and provide the habitat needed to sustain productive reef fisheries,” said Peter Mumby of The University of Queensland in Current Biology (May 9, 2013).
Reefs may be suffering but collapse is not inevitable.
The situation in Langkawi called for something different.  There were already substantial coral reefs nearby but overfishing was holding back production and nets were damaging coral. What was needed was an extension of the fishing grounds into deeper water and away from the shallow nursery areas.
The concept started with the Andaman Resort, Langkawi where a Coral Nursery was already up and running. The National University of Malaysia (UKM) that opened its Langkawi Research Centre (PPL) on March 19, 2013 and the islands largest manufacturer, Lafarge’s Kedah Cement joined in.

 Molds for the artificial reef modules under construction.
Both the Andaman Resort (through myself as environmental consultant) and UKM have extensive backgrounds in coral reef ecology, fisheries management, and artificial reefs. It was the artificial reefs that were considered to have the best chance of improving Langkawi’s fish stocks.

Not only did the interested parties want to restore fish stocks and enhance coral growth; they wanted to draw the community together to protect and manage their marine resources into the future.
The three-party working group designed their own Artificial Reef Module (ARM) and constructed the first prototype in May, 2013. These small modules are cement based and designed to suit the behaviour and sizes of local fish species. They are unique and a product of initiatives taken on Langkawi. They will be constructed, deployed, and managed through the generosity of the working group, tourists, local community, and financial contributions of outside and overseas organisations. They will not be patented, there are no royalties for their use, and will be available to local community that want to assist.

 First prototype (shown upside-down) after removal from the mold.

Mr. Kee Alfian of the UKM and PPL states that “Anecdotal information suggests that water quality was better and coral reefs were probably healthier prior to extensive development and forest clearing. More prolific coral growth and fewer fishermen would have guaranteed a better catch in years past. We hope the new ARMs will turn this situation around.”
Unlike most artificial reef projects of the past, the development of this network of artificial reefs will be science based. Research students working toward Master and Ph.D. degrees will monitor and improve design and positioning of the ARMs in the years to come.
Over the next twelve months the working group will survey a section of Langkawi’s reefs and will attempt to put in place 500 ARMs covering about 13,000 square metres.

“This is only a start,” said UKM’s Prof. Norhayati Ahmad. “With community support these artificial reefs can be extended over large tracts of the seabed. Research has shown that well managed coral reefs can produce as much as 15 tonnes of fish per square kilometre. It would be wonderful if we could achieve this target.”

“Kedah Cement will be making more moulds once the prototype is tried and tested. Through local support, community involvement, and the assistance of resort guests we hope to add more artificial reef areas each year” said Lafarge’s project manager Syed-Muhammad Syed-Nadzir.

While the project is on the brink of its official launch, interest is already being shown by environmentally active organisations in other parts of Malaysia. The launch will be held at the Andaman Resort and coincide with World Ocean Day (June 8th) and Coral Triangle Day (June 9th). Extensive media coverage is planned.

"Business as usual isn't going to cut it," said Peter Mumby (Univ. of Queensland). "The good news is that it does seem possible to maintain reefs -- we just have to be serious about doing something. It also means that local reef management -- efforts to curb pollution and overfishing -- are absolutely justified. Some have claimed that the climate change problem is so great that local management is futile. We show that this viewpoint is wrongheaded."

UKM’s  Mr. Kee Alfian and Prof. Norhayati agreed, “If the reefs around Langkawi are properly rehabilitated, there is a possibility (within 10 years) that we will see a real ‘comeback’ of reef organisms and an increase in fish production”.

“We’ve really only started the ball rolling. When local communities, businesses, and schools join us, we have a real chance of making a difference and showing the world how people on a small island can band together to protect their children’s futures”, said Ms Anne Scott, GM of Langkawi’s Andaman Resort.

A line borrowed from the 1962 “Lawrence of Arabia” is used again in the film “Prometheus” when David referring to evolution says, “Big things have small beginnings.” For the sake of future generations and this little blue planet, let us all hope he is right.

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