THE Serenity and beauty of the underwater world we see in television documentaries make us want to learn scuba-diving so that we can really see the scenes up-close. In Singapore, the marine environment is an important resource contributing to economic growth. The surrounding waters support a busy port and one of the largest oil refining centres in Asia.
As Singapore works overtime to reclaim more land from the sea, there appears to be a bleak future for marine life and coral reefs. Researchers estimated that close to 60 per cent of the total coral reef areas have been lost through offshore reclamation over the years.
But all is not lost. According to Professor Chou Loke Ming of the Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, there are still clusters of healthy reefs with about 110 marine species in Singapore's territorial waters.
Reefs off islands used by the military for live-firing exercises and those off Pulau Bukom where Shell has its refineries are among the healthier reefs in Singapore. Chou explains: "Because they are off-limits to the public, marine life there is undisturbed. Usually, corals are destroyed by boat anchors, careless divers, fish traps, and others who collect corals as souvenirs or to sell them."
He quotes another example of unintended reef management: "In Sattaheep, south of Pattaya, Thailand, the reefs are in excellent condition as they lie within a naval base that is off-limits to the public. A good example of effective management in a region where enforcement is, for the most part, weak or symbolic, is the strong protection given to reefs surrounding small islands that attract swiftlets to nest.
"The birds roost in caves of these islands and their nests are harvested to produce bird's nest which can fetch up to S$5,000 per kilo."
He adds that operators who pay to harvest the nests take measures to ensure that no one goes near the islands. Some even hire guards with machine guns. The reefs around these places are in the best of health.
On the Singapore government's policy on reef conservation, Chou says: "This is something difficult to comprehend. We don't have a marine protected area except for the military off-limits areas. There seems to be a reluctance to declare marine protected areas. The National Parks Board is looking at coral reefs to try to get a good understanding of the biodiversity."
Benefits of Reefs
It will be easier to get funding for research and conservation if businesses can see the benefit of reefs. Chou says that reefs prevent heavy erosion of the beaches; they do the work of sea walls. Reefs, being natural habitats can generate food for coastal communities. They attract tourists, especially divers, who help to generate economic benefits. This may not be applicable to Singapore as our waters are turbid. A healthy and well-managed reef is worth a lot of money. The annual economic gain from healthy reefs is estimated at S$500,000 per square kilometre. Australia's Great Barrier Reef is an asset to the east coast states.
Reefs help in the carbon fixation process to use up global-warming gases and thus help to regulate the quality of the environment.
Professor Chou has been involved with coral reef management research in southeast Asia. He was chairperson of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network from 2003 to 2005. "I've all along been very attracted to the sea," he confesses. "From young, I was living by the sea at Siglap before the shore was reclaimed. At university, I had the chance to go snorkelling and saw the beauty of reefs. In the 1960s, our coastal waters were very clear."
While being so involved with marine life over the years, Chou smilingly admits that if served with shark fin soup at a restaurant, he will take it. He says that he not that kind of an activist.
On the dangers of diving, he remembered that in the earlier days, there was once when his air tank just ran out. He had to signal to his buddy to share the air.
One of the main problems in reef conservation is trying to convince decision-makers of the real value of reefs. "We can tell them that if protected, this reef is worth $1 million but they don't see that. It doesn't accrue to their budget. Only after the reef is destroyed and people have no food, then they try to protect the reef," Chou says.
A well-known example of a coastal community transforming a degraded reef that has been severely damaged by blast-fishing and over-fishing to one that supports sustainable fisheries is that of Apo island in the Philippines.
The 800 inhabitants of this small island realised in 1982 that they had damaged the surrounding reef by over-fishing. Listening to the advice of reef scientists, they stopped the destructive fishing and set aside a quarter of the reef as a marine sanctuary. The sanctuary is a protected zone operating as a "no-take" area.
Nobody is allowed to fish or extract anything from the zone and scientific investigation is limited to non-destructive methods. Over time, the reef recovered and the community has been able to fish at a sustainable level since. Today, it attracts tourists and generates additional income for the community.
Another problem lies with private developers who do not understand the ecology of reefs. They want to create artificial reefs that will fit into their development plans which can sometimes be unrealistic. For example, they may want the reef to be sited at a specific location where the reefs can grow naturally. It is better to work with the environment.
In effective reef management, the reef must be free from the destructive impacts of development, pollution, and other human activities.
On the future of reef conservation in the region, Chou says: "I'm always optimistic. The regional reefs have been degraded but they are not totally degraded. There is still hope for the reefs to escape total destruction. Public awareness has gone up. For example, in Indonesia, the World Bank funded an awareness programme with a million dollars."
His message to the younger generation is "don't give up hope". The challenge is to balance development and conservation. He feels young people are sometimes too idealistic; they just want to conserve without development. In the case of coral reefs, development and conservation can co-exist.
Source Citation:Teik, Tan Chee. "Saving the reefs for future generations: a third of the world's reefs are in southeast Asia. The natural heritage of the region has been severely affected by economic development. If nothing is done, future generations will not enjoy the natural beauty and benefits of coral reefs." Today's Manager (August-Sept 2008): 26(3). Academic OneFile. Gale. Alachua County Library District. 9 Oct. 2009
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