Reef Check Malaysia Workshop

RCM logo 2011 smallThe first Reef Check South East Asia Coral Reef Management Workshop took place this last week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The event, hosted by the Reef Check Malaysia, brought together some of the most proactive scientists, academics, researchers, and reef managers from around the SEA Region. The list of countries participating included Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and also Greg Hodgson, the president of Reef Check, coming in from the US. The goal of the workshop was to identify success and failures in coral reef management and monitoring to improve the capacity of, and networking between, the regional managers.

I was also there to talk about the situation of Koh Tao, and how we have utilized a wide range of methods and strategies to bring together business, the community, tourists, and the government in the protection of our island. It was a real honor for us to share the room with such coral reef greats such as Dr. James Guest, Dr. Suchana ‘Apple’ Chavanich, Dr. Thamasak Yeemin, Dr. Perry Alino, Paul Hodgson, and Prof. Ridzwan Rahman.

Reef Check MalaysiaThe first day of the workshop we listened to James Guest speak about “will corals adapt to rising temperatures and more frequent thermal anomalies?” His presentation was, as usual, unbiased and addressed both sides of the leading arguments on this hotly debated topic. Personally I have strong feeling about this argument, because some researchers have been using very small and limited data sets or extreme examples to propel the argument that corals will adapt to climate change and that we should not worry. While I give corals credit in their survival, I strongly disagree with this message. Dr. Guest did a great job of describing what is known for sure, and discussing some of the limitations to coral’s adaptability and extent in geographic range (some people think coral reefs will simply migrate towards the Earth’s poles). In his findings, coral reefs which have previously been subjected to high thermal stresses tend to do better in subsequent events, but he cautions about how far we should take this information when discussing coral adaptability to climate change.

We also heard from Paul Hodgson on the first day, who has done some amazing work in Hong Kong over the last few decades. I was most impressed with the strategy they used to stop blast fishing, by installing monitoring devices that are cheap and so easy to make that they got school kids involved in the assembly. Later he also discussed how he has had success with a different elctro-mineralization technique other than the standard Biorock. Instead of DC power, his project uses AC power and gets similar results with less materials and complicated components. If that wasn’t enough, he also had some great inventions including a non-toxic reef cement which can be made in vast quantities, and a trap for Drupella Snails. I strongly recommend others to check out the work he has done, I know think he is one of the most innovative reef managers/restorationists around today.

After a few more great presentations, we broke into groups to workshop about problems and solutions in a particular field of coral reef management that had been covered in the morning presentations.
The second day brought talks from many of Thailand’s reef researchers, including the Thailand Reef Check Coordinator Dr. Suchana of Chulalongkorn University. In addition to her work with Reef Check, she also has Thailand’s largest coral spawning and larval culturing center, and is growing corals for restoration projects. Dr. Thamasak Yeemin talked about the coral reef bleaching event of 2010 in Thailand, and some of the management actions taken throughout the country to address the issue. Dr. James True spoke about some of the ‘concept failures of coral reef restoration,’ focused on how certain methods do not work and should not be repeated. Which was a good lead-in to my presentation about the success we have had with artificial reefs here on Koh Tao with the Save Koh Tao Group and the benefits they have provided to our local reefs and dive industry.

I was a bit disappointed though that the president of Reef Check disagreed with coral reef restoration, saying that “Artificial reefs are a waste of money that could be used for the ‘real’ solutions.” While I respect his view, I do not agree with it. Protection is definitely a better option than restoration, but we cannot protect reefs from most of the impacts facing them. There is no way to close a reef off from the effects of climate change. In many areas reefs have become so degraded already, that even if all the threats could be removed they would still not come back in the foreseeable future.
Marine Protected Areas have been the dominate form of protection for the last 30 years worldwide, and most of the money given by big NGO’s and government groups has gone towards their implementation. And while they are a necessary first step, only between 11-20% are effective (depending on the study you read). Thirty years then has been lost, when during that time much could have been done in the way of rehabilitation, restoration, and mitigation to increase the coral reef health, abundance, and diversity. Instead, global reef decline has risen from 1% per year 20 years ago, to 2% per year today.

So what are the ‘real’ solutions that our money and resources should be going towards, I ask? [you can comment at the bottom of the page] I don’t think there is any silver bullet, like most the world’s current problems it is going to take a shift in the way we do almost everything, and we need to utilize all the tools available to us. While not all those tools are perfect yet, all should be explored and developed to their full capacity. A lack of full scientific knowledge and understanding is not an excuse for a lack of action (not sure who said that). Future generations will not judge us by our actions, but by our inactions (or that).

We are very blessed to be working in this field, and to be able to share the time with so many great young budding reef managers. All the people at the Malaysian Reef Check workshop are doing a great job in their own way to improve the conditions of their reefs and the capacity of the communities that depend on them. I am very pleased to have met all these great people, and will be sure to highlight some on our webpage here over the next couple of weeks.