Whenever we talk about the Earth, we think of the land area. In fact, the ocean makes up about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface area, and is the source of life. If there is something wrong with the ocean, this will be a threat to nature and all living beings.
Taiwan, being an island nation, is renowned for stunning coastal landscape, making it one of the diving paradises in the world. Apart from the main island, there are numerous smaller islands off the coast – Lanyu (Orchid Island), Xiaoliuqiu (Lambai Island), and Green Island – which are all popular diving spots.
Have you ever thought of what makes a diving spot so majestic and attractive? Turquoise crystal-clear waters, fascinating seascapes, schools of colorful tropical fish or abundant coral reefs? Yet, will there still be diving paradises in the world in the face of climate change?
Maritime Fairtrade has recently interviewed Dr. Aziz J Mulla, a post-doctoral researcher at the Coral Reef Field Ecology Lab, Biodiversity Research Center, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He scuba-dives a lot as part of his job.
How is the research of coral reef ecology important?
Taiwan’s relationship with the ocean is extremely important. Taiwan experiences long, frequent and intense oceanographic recurrent disturbance and typhoons and they shed light on the effects on coral reefs.
“There are over 300 species of corals which is a pretty highlight for a high latitude country. In Papua New Guinea, the number is nearly 800 species while there are over 500 species in the Philippines.
“Taiwan is considered as a small island, but the biodiversity is incredible. You can climb to 3,000-meter high and you can also go down 100-meter deep, and see completely different ecosystems.
“I think it’s difficult for many people to see the ocean as it is expensive to dive. However, there are still some people who are willing to spend the money and a part of the growth of leisure diving depends on the health of the coral reefs. Thousands of jobs directly rely on coral reefs, which provide billions of dollars to the global economy.
“Research in Taiwan is pretty diverse; my co-workers work on coral, turtle ecology, fish and more. There’s not much overlap, which means there is a lot of things to do.
“We need to work closer with researchers in China, Japan, and Korea to protect all the corals on a regional basis. Also, we should definitely have more collaborations with Southeast Asian countries.”
What are the conditions of coral reefs according to your research?
“We lost lots of coral in the last decade due to climate change, heat waves or bleaching in 2020. But I would say the situation of Taiwan’s corals really varies between sites.
“In Green Island, Penghu and Kenting, it depends on which site you go to. It can be diverse. In Lanyu, for example, the coral reefs grow extremely amazingly. A lot of coral reefs are very healthy and look good in recovery. But in terms of diversity, it is definitely not.
“It’s just like everyone in the country with the same job. You restrict yourself to only a particular set of skills. When we have a diverse community, we can diversify the economy. And it’s just the same for the coral reef.”
It is not just about quantity but the quality of corals that a place has.
“We definitely need to increase the diversity of corals. But overall, the coral is good except the encounter with serious coral bleaching in 2020.”
The waters off the southern part of the island was given a serious coral bleaching alert by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The coral bleaches because of high sea temperature.
“Incredibly the coral was able to recover from the bleaching even though lots of particular species died. So, what we found is that bleaching creates a more homogenous survival environment. The more it happens, the more difficult for the corals to recover.”
Why do your research in Taiwan?
For people doing research on coral reefs, there are a number of options – Australia, Hawaii, parts of South East Asia, Red Sea, Caribbean, and Florida. So why did Aziz choose Taiwan?
“Taiwan is kind of an interesting place mainly because it experiences the oceanographic current disturbance and typhoons. Most importantly for me, the reef is at the door step. We can leave Taipei at 7 am in the morning, and we can dive by midday.
“It’s pretty difficult to do that in many parts of the world and in Australia, sometimes it takes a couple of days to get to the reefs.
“And Taiwan is in a unique position, where we have numerous coral reefs around us, both in the north and south. It’s very accessible.
“More than that, Taiwan is one of the more tropical countries, and acts as a stepping stone for corals in China, South Korea and Japan, in terms of connectivity which is a big part with my PhD on particular coral species.”
Although Taiwan is a small island, contributing to only 0.03 percent of the world’s land mass, the number of fauna and fora species in Taiwan accounted for 2.6 percent. A great variety of ecosystems including high mountains, estuaries, coral reefs, and deep-sea systems can be found in Taiwan, resulting in such large species biodiversity.
What do you think of marine research in Taiwan?
“I think Taiwan is a pretty good place to do research, especially marine science. There are lots of opportunities. For me, as I am working at the national academy, funding is available for research.
“Coral reefs provide a lot of our oxygen on earth, and they absorb CO2 as well. So, coral reefs are extremely important for humanity and we protect them not because they look good.
The impact of research also depends on how the media works to disseminate science to the general public, and Aziz thinks popular scientists may also be able to raise awareness of important issues.
Is the government doing enough for the environment?
“In the big picture, no government is doing enough. We need to be serious enough and have the will to tackle the problem. Also, there must a balance between economic growth and taking care of the environment.
“One of the government’s roles is to protect people, and climate change is a huge threat to our lives and livelihood. So, it is the government’s responsibility to regulate, look into the crisis and see how we can act without affecting economic growth as well. Education is also important to let people know how the country is affected because of climate change.”
How did you get into the field of coral reef ecology?
Aziz J Mulla, a biologist from the United Kingdom, came to Taiwan seven years ago to study for his PhD, specializing in coral reproduction and recovery research.
At a very young age, Aziz first encountered coral reefs when he was on vacation with his family in Egypt. It was his mum who first introduced him to snorkeling where he found himself extremely interested in this kind of new world under the water.
It was not until Aziz went back to the hotel that he realized he had also witnessed how the diving boat had knocked into and destroyed part of the reef. This planted a seed in his heart.
“I was curious about the consequences of humans destroying the coral reef.”
With a passion thus started, Aziz and his family always went to the Red Sea for vacation, sometimes to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan.
Being a diving addict, he eventually went to university to study geography and environmental science with a minor in biology. Later, his thesis focused on the health of coral reef in Egypt.
“I was just kind of stuck with this. I got more dives and I now do it for a job.”
What is life of a coral researcher like?
The Biodiversity Research Center was formally established at Academia Sinica in 2004.
“Our lab under the research center is quite lucky enough and we are one of the few ecology labs around. We do a lot of field work. Usually in a year, we go on around seven to eight big field trips to places in Taiwan.
“I focus on coral; my main area is coral recovery, the ability to recover from disturbance. But my colleague from Brazil works on fish and my local colleague works on sea turtles. So, we have a kind of diversity, but everything connects. We can help each other out.”
Aziz collects data mainly through field trips.
“Each time, we go back to the same location to see how the corals recover. That teaches us a lot about reproduction, survival, what is essential for corals and essential for our understanding when it comes to management as well.
“I also do a lot of experiments to see how coral larvae respond to different environmental cues such as light and pressure.
“For part of my research and day-to-day job, something me and my colleagues don’t really like, but is very important is that we have to analyze the data and then publish papers. Lots of my time are spent writing papers of what we have done and what we have found.”
One of the restrictions for coral researchers is that diving is usually limited to 60 to 90 minutes.
“You have a lot of things to do, take pictures and videos back to the lab for analysis. And we do a lot of projects at once. And usually along the way, we find a lot of new things in the data that we couldn’t see when we were diving.
“A part of my job is doing a lot of outreach work, especially in Taiwan, talking to the media and students about the conditions of Taiwan’s coral reefs.”
For Aziz’s research, he primarily focuses on Lanyu.
“It’s quite an opportunity as not much research comes out of Lanyu and it’s difficult to get there. Part of the research also focuses on Green Island because we have a marine station there, so we do a lot of experiments. Last month, I went there for two weeks since this was the spawning season. We also go to Kenting, Lambai Island (Liuqiu) and Penghu Main Island as well.”
“While the whole of Taiwan focuses on the north, we are more focused on the south,” Aziz joked.
When talking about his favorite islands, he replied: “For the first time I went to Green Island, it became my favorite. Lanyu is also one of my favorite places for sure, after having been to both places many times.
“Usually, there are not too many tourists, especially during COVID. It is a relatively big island, stunning in shape with huge mountains, and the sea is beautiful, extremely clear. People in Lanyu are extremely kind and nice, and the culture is something definitely worth seeing.
“The island has provided unique data and we are able to track the recovery of corals over time. Yet it’s difficult to get there as the sea around is quite rough.”
Any unforgettable events happened during your research?
“Just before the pandemic 2019, we were in Green Island for a month and we were monitoring the reproduction of corals. When the corals spawn, there was a kind of smell and we dived in and we saw an amazing scene. The spawning corals, numbering in the hundreds, were like fireworks, just like Chinese lanterns.”
Top photo: Aziz J Mulla (middle).
All photos credit: Aziz J Mulla