By Kait Harris
Recently, NHRCP instructors Kait Harris and Pau Urgell traveled to the Maldives to work alongside the Island Livelihood Institute, educating local island communities on coral reef ecology and artificial reefs as a tool for restoration. During our stay, we learned a great deal about the restoration efforts happening on many of the islands, and were able to pass on some of our knowledge too.
The Maldives are chain of islands made up of twenty-six limestone atolls formed by corals, which extend over 90,000 square kilometers. It is Asia’s smallest country by total land area, and also the planet’s lowest country, with an average height above sea level of just 1.5m, making it extremely vulnerable to climate-change induced sea-level rise. Rising sea levels is not the only threat which faces the country’s oceans, with over-fishing an issue since the 1980s and rising sea temperatures causing widespread bleaching and coral mortality.
Like our island Koh Tao, the Maldives get most of its income from tourism, which is heavily dependent on the coral reefs surrounding the islands. The coral reef ecosystem supplies the Maldives with income from fishing and other resources, and buffers the small islands from erosion and extreme natural events such as monsoons and the 2004 tsunami. After the 1998 global bleaching event, the Maldives lost 95% of shallow corals, and with the current El Niño event the damage is set to be even worse this year.
Many of the resort islands have reef conservation programs in place, however most locally-inhabited islands lack any conservation or restoration efforts. The Island Livelihood project aims to change that, and is currently running three main programs for the benefit of local communities – mangrove rehabilitation, grouper fisheries and coral gardening. We traveled to two of the islands where the Corals Blue coral gardening projects were located; Fainu and Kudafari.
We first traveled to Fainu in Raa Atoll to share our techniques with the local community. In January, 150 metal domes were deployed, with coral fragments attached from nearby reef patches mainly the branching coral Acropora sp., which fit snugly against the rebar allowing it to encrust onto the metal. Many of the corals that were transplanted had begun encrusting onto the domes but have since bleached or died, which was discouraging for the locals who had worked on the site. It is expected that the rainy season will bring the water temperate down, allowing the bleached corals to recover, so it isn’t all bad news! After the coral begins to recover, further attachment of fragments can commence, with a better chance of the corals encrusting to the structures and forming a healthy artificial reef site.
In the meantime, we went out snorkeling with the participants to the artificial reef site to move pieces of rock and rubble underneath the domes, as is done on our own metal structures on Koh Tao. This creates habitat for species of fish and invertebrates, which look after the corals and form the basis of a healthy ecosystem.
A couple of days in Fainu were spent with the local schoolkids, teaching them about the importance of the coral reef ecosystem, and how we can keep it healthy. We followed through with a beach clean-up, filling well over 70 bags with trash washed up on the beach! On the other side of the island, we practiced some survey techniques with some of the workshop participants. Although the substrate is incredibly degraded and damaged from both this year’s bleaching and the 1998 global bleaching event, the abundance and species richness of fish remains very high which is a positive sign that the reef can recover.
Our second week saw us travel to Kudafari in Noonu Atoll, where we were put to work creating table nurseries and bottle nurseries to put down alongside 30 dome structures just off the north coast of the island. There was a similar amount of bleaching here too, with the majority of corals partially bleached, fully bleached or completely dead. We are hoping that the corals recover from the bleaching event as monsoon weather brings down sea temperatures, and looking forward to seeing how the project develops over the coming months.
We are so grateful to Shambo and Waddey from the Island Livelihood Institute for inviting us over and allowing us to contribute to the Corals Blue project. It’s exciting to be a part of this project and it will be great to see how it grows and develops over the coming months and years!