Malaysia battles to restore coral reefs

If we were to use a scale from zero to ten to indicate the severity of current coral reefs situation in Malaysia, the founder of Coralku Sebastian Szereday, during a virtual interview with Maritime Fairtrade, selected a rating of nine. 

This number came with a message. 

“The impact of climate change poses significant existential challenges to coral reefs that cannot be ignored. With the increasing severity of these challenges, it is crucial to address the losses we have already experienced and prioritize the preservation of what remains,” Szereday explained.

Founded in 2021, Coralku is a non-profit organization dedicated to translating scientific research into practical restoration initiatives for the Malaysian coral reefs, with a specific focus on those found around Lang Tengah Island in Terengganu.

Mass coral bleaching occurs when ocean temperatures exceed the physiological limits of the coral. These events can have significant impacts on coral reef ecosystems if high temperatures persist for extended periods. Photo credit: The Ocean Agency

Szereday said: “Despite facing various challenges, there have been ongoing discussions surrounding developments that are harmful to the environment. 

“However, in a recent case, the Malaysian coral reef community successfully rallied against the construction of a proposed new international airport in Tioman. In this instance, they prioritized the protection of coral reefs over financial interests. 

“This marks a significant moment in Malaysia, where coral reefs were given precedence. A positive outcome that showcases both reckless development and successful conservation efforts.”

Szereday observed that coral reefs encounter a range of challenges that span from local to global levels. At a local scale, there could be tourism resorts that release significant amounts of polluted water into the reef ecosystem. There might be instances of snorkelers who are careless and accidentally step on the fragile reef or divers who unwittingly break coral formations. 

Meanwhile, in the northeast regions where Coralku is situated, there is a concerning issue of overfishing, which surpasses the coral reefs’ capacity. This situation arises mainly because of the unregulated presence of local, Thai, and Vietnamese fishing vessels, contributing to increased fishing activities in the area. That are against existing regulations.

“While you address the local and regional scale issues, you will still need to tackle global issues like climate change,” Szereday said. “This urgency is heightened by the onset of El Niño, which is truly a grim reaper.”

In 2019, Malaysia was hit by Tropical Storm Pabuk, leading to severe damage in the northeast region. This catastrophic event resulted in a notable decrease in coral cover within the affected area. Photo credit: Coralku

Szereday said: “An equally applicable saying would be to imagine yourself in a forest where a researcher claims that 40 percent of the area is covered by vegetation at present. 42 percent in the following year. Once you’ve comprehended the forest concept, you might challenge the researcher by asking, what does vegetation cover mean to you?”

Maritime Fairtrade recently came across several reports that revealed an encouraging trend of coral reef recovery in Malaysia. In light of these findings, Szereday was asked to share his thoughts.

“In 2019, a storm named Pabuk caused extensive damage to the northeast region of Malaysia, resulting in a substantial reduction in coral cover in this area. Shortly thereafter, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been reports highlight that some coral reefs have showed signs of recovery after the temporary closure of resorts and other interventions.

“The data represents the entire country. The metric, however, doesn’t provide information on which coral species is responsible for these fluctuations. Is it the same species consistently? Is it a fast-growing species that also has a short lifespan? Or is it a species that is particularly crucial for fish populations and tourism? 

“Coralku doesn’t have specific data for Malaysia. But we do have data for our location. Based on that, I would say the current situation of coral reefs remains fairly constant and stagnant.” 

It is common for people to mistakenly believe that a rise in coral cover automatically signifies the existence of thriving and functional coral reefs. However, this assumption is not always accurate.

When asked what indicators are adopted to measure coral health, “Similar to human, corals require a bell structure. We assess the reef health, the structure of each species, differences between reefs that are more degrading and those that are in better states, the coral bleaching events, and the coral cover,” Szereday replied.

Coralku conducts experiments and research to identify coral species that are resilient to heat stress events and have a higher chance of survival. They generically term them as “supercorals” because of their ability to withstand such events for extended periods. Photo credit: Coralku.

Szereday said: “Coral bleaching can be likened to a forest fire in its impact. People don’t really understand it because it’s underwater. Sometimes, certain factors can cause corals to exhibit vibrant colors, such as bright pink, intense yellow, or pure white. Although they may appear pretty, they don’t necessarily indicate a positive situation.”

Research shows in recent decades, approximately 90 percent of the excess heat resulting from greenhouse-gas emissions has been absorbed by the oceans. 

The average sea-surface temperature for this year began at a higher point compared to previous years, mainly due to the fact that 2022 was already marked by above-average ocean-surface temperatures. 

Yet, in 2023, unlike in previous years, these temperatures are persisting at higher levels for a longer duration than usual. 

“As we speak, the entire Caribbean is undergoing a mass coral bleaching event. In Florida, the highest sea surface temperature ever recorded was reported in July of this year,” Szereday commented. 

“These occurrences, known as pan tropical bleaching events, refer to situations when all regions of the world’s reefs experience thermal stress and subsequent bleaching within a similar time period.

“The current situation in the Caribbean (i.e., Florida, Mexico, Colombia, and Belize) may be the beginning of a pan-tropical bleaching event. These events are not normal occurrences; they are the immediate result of climate change-induced ocean warming. The issue of ocean warming, which leads to mass bleaching events, is ongoing and, unfortunately, worsening.”

According to Szereday, in Malaysia, certain years such as 1998, 2010, 2014, and 2016 were marked mass bleaching events. However, it was in the years 2019 and 2020 that a unique situation arose with consecutive events happening primarily in the Northeast region.

“This year, there is some bleaching observed of Malaysian coral reefs. This indicates a trend where these bleaching events are occurring with less time between them,” Szereday added. 

“We are conducting various experiments, analyzing extensive data, and conducting thorough research to identify coral species with the potential to survive longer or even withstand multiple bleaching events. We generically term them as “supercorals” due to their increased likelihood of survival.”

A glimpse into the coral restoration projects in Lang Tengah Island, Terengganu, led by Coralku. Photo credit: Coralku

Szereday: “When it comes to coral restoration efforts, individuals should be transparent and truthful. While certain approaches have been proven effective, it is equally important to acknowledge instances where they may not yield successful results. In such cases, individuals should take responsibility and remove any ineffective measures that have been implemented in the ocean.”

Planting corals can be challenging due to the constant movement of the substrate. It can be especially problematic during storms when the shifting substrates can disrupt or displace newly planted corals. 

However, when there is plenty of stable substrate available, it serves as an ideal coral planting location. In such areas, corals can be securely placed and have higher chances of survival.

For area with good substrates, Coralku utilizes a device called coral clip to ensure the stability of coral. The clip is made of the same material as the one used by surgeons to treat severe bone fractures. It consists of a stainless-steel spring clip that securely clamps the coral to the reef. Within two to three months, the coral will begin its independent growth and gradually transform into a stunning colony.

The Coral Trees are designed to be securely anchored to the ocean floor while being supported by a subsurface float. To enhance coral growth, fragments are carefully suspended from the tree branches using monofilament line. Photo credit: Coralku

Szereday: “While coral restoration is a valuable approach, we have to recognize that it cannot be the ultimate solution to our environmental problems. Ideally, we should prioritize eliminating the root causes of environmental issues. 

“Due to the current circumstances, we’re compelled to undertake coral restoration efforts as a means to buy time and develop precise strategies and methods for long-term preservation.”

Szereday believes that there are individuals who are attempting to influence public perception by suggesting that investing billions of dollars in coral restoration, particularly in Australia, will effectively solve the issues facing by coral reefs. However, this claim is not accurate.

To effectively address the issues faced by reefs, it is important to tackle and eliminate sources of pollution. Only then will coral restoration efforts have a chance of success. 

He exhorted: “To any readers out there, approach mainstream media with a questioning mindset. Refrain from trusting all that you hear; take the time to research and understand the backgrounds of individuals or causes you’re supporting.

“Triumph does not occur in a single day; it entails hard work, persistence, and often a considerable span of time for anything substantial to come into fruition and thrive. Hence, we must first tackle the more critical root causes to secure long-term success.”

Top photo credit: Atkinson Tan. During an education outreach event, Szereday was giving a presentation on the impacts of climate change on corals.

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