The silent threat to Thailand’s reefs

The silent threat to Thailand's reefs

By Natasha Eldred

The waters of the Andaman Sea surrounding Phuket and neighbouring islands are home to the most extensive and beautiful network of coral reef systems to be found in Thailand. The magnificent nature of these reefs, their variety and the marine life they support attract thousands of scuba divers and snorkelers to Thailand’s west coast every year, generating significant income for the region.

These reefs, whether they be those that fringe the shallow waters of Phuket, Phi Phi and Lanta or those to be found in the depths further off shore, are dived heavily throughout the high season and have suffered some damage in the past from inconsiderate or less skilled divers but nonetheless are resilient and strong enough to withstand a little rough housing.

Other threats to Thailand’s beautiful coral reef systems in recent years have come in the shape of fishing – regular, dynamite and cyanide – and illegal coral poaching for the lucrative aquarium trade.

While some might find it difficult to perceive the damage that can be done to reef systems by commercial fishing, it’s not hard to imagine the devastating effect dynamite fishing has on coral, especially when you consider how fragile an existence it has in everyday conditions; throw an explosive device into the mix and these beautiful examples of mother nature are reduced to rubble in the blink of an eye.

Thankfully this destructive practice is becoming less common than it was a number of years ago.

Klaus Thumm, owner or H2O Sportz in Cherng Talay and Phuket resident for almost 15 years, said, “Around 12 years ago, dynamite blasts were heard by divers on a fairly regular basis.

“These encounters, however, took place at sites away from the islands such as Hin Deang and Hin Muang rather than at dive sites close to the islands.”

Thumm attributes the decrease in dynamite fishing to a rise in the number of divers.

“The number of people diving in and around Phuket has risen sharply over the past decade and a half; this has helped to reduce the amount of dynamite fishing,” he said.

While dynamite fishing represents a danger to isolated parts of a reef, the newer trend of cyanide fishing is capable of destroying entire systems.

Cyanide fishing is a more practical alternative to dynamite fishing. It is considered the weapon of choice for those involved in the poaching of tropical fish.

A sodium cyanide solution is squirted on the fish, rendering it unconscious so it can be brought up to the surface to be sold. The cyanide has a devastating effect on the reef, starving it of oxygen. Should currents be present, the sodium cyanide will sweep across a reef, killing most things that lie in its path.

In January, 2010 a group of 10 sea gypsies were arrested in Phuket for illegal cyanide fishing when police caught them with more than 250 fish of varying species with a local value of some 200,000 baht and an estimated black market value of one million baht.

Despite being causes for concern, the aforementioned threats aren’t the biggest menace that Thailand’s reefs are facing.

Coral bleaching has affected a number of the reefs in the waters surrounding Phuket and nearby islands.

Coral bleaching is the whitening of corals due to stress-induced expulsion or death of their symbiotic protozoa, zooxanthellae, or due to the loss of pigmentation within the protozoa.

The corals that form the structure of the great reef ecosystems of tropical seas depend upon a symbiotic relationship with unicellular flagellate protozoa, called zooxanthellae. These protozoa are photosynthetic and live within their tissues.

Zooxanthellae give coral its coloration. The specific colour is dependent upon the particular clade. Under stress, corals may release their zooxanthellae and this creates a lighter or completely white appearance, which gives rise to the term ‘bleached’.

Bleaching occurs when the conditions vital to sustain the coral's zooxanthellae cannot be maintained. This can be caused by a number of factors including changes in the water chemistry, coral starvation caused by a decrease in zooplankton, increased sedimentation due to silt runoff, changes in salinity and cyanide fishing but the most common cause of coral bleaching is a change in sea temperature.

Bleaching can be caused by both increases and decreases in temperature but with sea temperatures rising around the globe, it is the former which is giving environmentalists and scientists cause for concern.

Large coral colonies such as Porites are able to withstand extreme temperature shocks, while fragile branching corals such as table coral are far more susceptible to stress following a temperature change.

According to Thumm, the average temperature of the water around Phuket is “between 26 and 29 degrees Celsius”.

“The water usually cools between October and January when the offshore winds take the warm water away and the under current brings colder water in,” he added.

Last year saw the average temperature of the Andaman Sea rise well above its usual peak of 29 degrees.

“The sea temperature in April in the Similans was 32 degrees Celsius for about six to eight weeks,” said a spokesperson for the Khao Lak Dive Operators Forum (KLDOF), which represents 28 dive and snorkel operators in the area.

Sea temperatures around Phuket and surrounding islands were even higher according to Thumm.

“Anything over 31 degrees Celsius is bad for the coral and last year the water temperature in and around Phuket reached 34 degrees,” he said.

Last year the Phuket Gazette reported that local marine scientists believed the coral conditions in the Andaman Sea to be the worst for 20 years and were at risk of further damage.

Niphon Phongsuwan, a marine biologist at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre was quoted in the Gazette [Gazette online, May, 2010]saying that coral bleaching in the Andaman Sea would continue to worsen if sea temperatures continue to rise.

At the same time dive professionals reported that the health of the corals in certain areas had deteriorated drastically in the past 12 months.

“The coral bleaching started towards the end of April and by May the corals that we now see dead were already bleached white. The worst bleaching occurred in September and October,” said a spokesperson for the KLDOF.

In January, 2011, three months after conditions were believed to be their worst, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources filed a request with the National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation Department – the group which manages the Similan and Surin National Parks – to have parts of the parks closed off to dive trips.

 “We will request closure of only certain parts within the Similan and Surin national parks. Tourists will still be able to dive in the parks, but certain parts will be off-limits to allow the coral to recover,”

Phuket Marine Biological Cente (PMBC) Director Wannakiat Thubthimsang told the Phuket Gazette on January 17 [Gazette online].

Just three days later a number of the dive sites were closed to the public in a bid to allow them to recover. The sites that were closed included Hin Klang reef at Hat Noppharat Thara in the Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, Ao Mae Yai, Ao Jak, Ao Tao, Koh Torinla and Ao Mang Kon in Mu Ko Surin National Park; and Ao Fai Wap and East of Eden at Mu Ko Similan National Park.

“It will take many years for the coral to recover; closing them for just a few months will not have any effect,” the PMBC’s Niphon Phongsawan told the Phuket Gazette [Gazette online, January 21, 2011].

The bleaching of coral reefs in the waters off Thailand’s West coast is not a new phenomenon, however.

“In the 14 years I have been here, this is the third time that I have experienced coral bleaching,” said Klaus Thumm of H20 Sportz.

The repeat bleaching was confirmed by Niphon Phongsawan who was quoted in the Phuket Gazette [Gazette online, January 21, 2011] saying: “In 2004, when 10- to 20% of corals at the sites showed bleaching, it took at least five years for the coral to recover; this time bleached corals account for 70- to 100% of some sites”.

With the bleaching worse than ever before, the National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation Department had to be seen to be doing something to preserve the local coral reefs. The members of the KLDOF believe that closing off some of the dive sites was the correct course of action.

“Only two of over 25 dives sites were closed in the Similan National Park in January 2011; Beacon Reef and East of Eden. This was to help protect the reefs from any further damage due to human impact and give them the space to recover,” said the KLDOF spokesperson.

“It was a good move to close the two dive sites but the focus should be on positive steps forward to protect the National Park rather than the negative aspect of the reef closures. We need tourism to help raise awareness of the problems in our oceans and generate funds to support local businesses and conservation projects,” they added.

In a press release issued on January 30, 2011 the KLDOF pledged further support by stating, “The dive operators will work alongside the authorities to protect and conserve the thriving local underwater worlds and we therefore not only accept but actively encourage the decision to close the two sites in order to replenish their health”.

The sentiment of the KLDOF was echoed by H20 Sportz’s Thumm who said, “Restricting diving in certain parts of the region was the correct course of action.”

“By not allowing dive trips to certain sites in the Andaman will allow them to recover more swiftly,” he added.

The move by the National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation Department seems to be paying dividends as the corals have already begun to show signs of recovery.

“The reefs showed signs of recovery as early as November,” said H2O Sportz’s Klaus Thumm.

“The soft corals around Koh Phi Phi and Phuket are now fully recovered,” he added.

Rising sea temperatures are of grave concern to marine experts and should this trend continue the coral reefs of the world will face extinction in the long-term future.

While it is important that everyone contributes to help reduce the impact of climate change, in the short term reefs are at risk from increased numbers of scuba divers.

Koh Tao on Thailand’s east coast is a Mecca for people wishing to learn how to scuba dive; indeed only Cairns, Australia certifies more students per year.

The dive sites around Koh Tao have suffered due to the number of people diving them day after day. This has lead to a number of companies launching their own marine conservation initiatives in a bid to preserve the delicate ecosystem.

Crystal Dive on Koh Tao is one of the island’s leading eco-dive shops as its PADI Course Director Matt Bolton explained.

“Having lived and worked on the island for the past nine years, I’d become concerned at the impact tourism in general was having on the environment.

“Although very limited in what I could do to influence local governmental policy, I realized that being the general manager of one of the island’s larger dive operations put me in a unique position and with a huge amount of resources at my disposal.

“I needed to come up with a plan that would demonstrate the benefits to the islands ecology, whilst also benefiting the business. I think we have managed to achieve both.

“We haven’t just increased the environmental awareness of our staff and customers, but in true Koh Tao fashion, the need to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ has meant other dive centres have followed our lead”.

As one of Koh Tao’s biggest dive operators, Crystal Dive has been one of the standard bearers for adopting eco-friendly practices.

“Since launching our eco program in 2007 we have developed and implemented of our own artificial reef known as ‘Junkyard Reef’ located in Mae Haad, 300 metres from the beach in front of Crystal. We conduct discover scuba dives, open water training dives and some adventure dives here. We have also persuaded one of two other likeminded dive centres to follow suit,” Bolton said.

“We’re also developing coral nurseries around the island in conjunction with the Prince of Songkla University and ‘Save Koh Tao’ group to help restore damaged reefs after the recent bleaching event in 2010,” he added.

As the leading dive certifying agencies in the world both PADI and SSI have a duty to ensure that the world’s coral reefs are maintained so they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Both agencies have extensive eco programs, which are ongoing as they look to preserve these fragile environments.

“PADI’s overarching eco-project is the establishment of Project AWARE. We founded Project AWARE in 1989 due to concerns over threats to the marine environment. The initiative was so successful that in 1992 Project AWARE became a separate nonprofit organization,” said David Roe, a marine conservation officer at the Project AWARE Foundation.

“Today Project AWARE works in partnership with PADI and with divers and water enthusiasts to combat challenges facing underwater environments,” he added.

SSI Thailand’s Gary Hawkes explained what Scuba Schools International eco programs are:

“All SSI courses place emphasis on protecting the environment, from introductory courses to instructor courses.

“Taken from experience gained from the Great Barrier Reef and other large ecosystems we are fortunate to operate in they include emphasis on good buoyancy, minimal impact diving practices and training local guides to not to harass or touch marine life or coral structures.

“SSI also runs an ecological program where money raised locally from SSI schools is spent on local projects. This means our projects directly impact the local environment and the money raised stays within Thailand,” he said.

Both agencies have initiated a number of programs to help protect the coral reefs with great success.

SSI programs include ecological awareness campaigns promoting the SSI code of practice, biorock installation and maintenance, an environmental mapping project in the Gulf of Thailand, and the sponsored training of SSI professionals, educating them in coral and reef monitoring procedures.

PADI initiatives have included the monitoring of reefs for bleaching through a partnership with CoralWatch, supporting local marine conservation initiatives run by dive centres, divers, researchers and other organisations and individuals; and marine debris cleanups including International Cleanup Day.

With the agencies driving eco-awareness, everyone has a responsibility to ensure the beautiful ecosystems that exist below the waves are preserved for generations to come. Failure to act now could result in these incredible natural wonders being lost forever.