All Ko Lanta dive sites remain open after reports that many of Thailand’s top dive sites are to be closed today, due to coral bleaching that occurred at shallow depths during the El Niño period in May 2010.The director of the Department for National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation in Thailand, Sunan Arunnoparat, announced yesterday that eighteen diving and snorkelling sites, located mainly off the west (Andaman) coast of Thailand, will be closed for up to 14 months to allow coral, damaged by unusually high sea temperatures in May 2010, to recover.
The dramatic move was announced last night following a meeting in Bangkok that included marine biologists and researchers.
Dive sites listed to close lie within 7 of Thailand’s 148 National Parks and include sites within the National Marine Parks of; Ko Surin, Similan, Phi Phi, Petra, Tarutao, Chumphon and Hat Chao Mai.
It’s unclear how individual sites were chosen for closure. Although many of the sites listed are within high-profile marine parks that are famous for attracting large numbers of divers each year, none of the actual sites listed as banned are among the major diving destinations in Thailand.
The two sites listed for closure nearest the Ko Lanta area are, Ko Chuak – sometimes included as part of the popular 4-Island Snorkelling Tour, and Hin Klang – a snorkel site near Ko Phi Phi. All other sites remain open for diving and snorkelling.
Closures are due to begin today (Friday 21st January 2011). Divers or snorkeller breaching these closures could incur penalties of 1,000 – 10,000 THB (equivalent to US$30 – US$300).
An announcement, welcomed by many marine environmentalists, stated that Thai authorities have also vowed to step up patrols to stop illegal fishing and increase moorings at spots not affected by the closures, aimed at reducing damage done by boats anchoring on, or using destructive fishing practices, near reefs. There is no indication as to how these steps will be enforced. For decades, illegal fishing has continued on and around marine parks, even though divers have been calling on the authorities to enforce protection laws.
“More than half of southern Thailand’s 15,000 hectares of coral reefs are suffering from the effects of bleaching”, a phenomenon caused largely by rising sea temperatures over an extended period. “We will study the cause and effect and find a way to restore them,” said Sunan Arunnopparat, director of the Department of National Parks.
Many local dive operators in southern Thailand are actively involved in reef monitoring projects in collaboration with Project AWARE, Greenfins and the Phuket Marine Biology Centre in order to study and limit the effects of global warming and coral bleaching.
Diving and snorkelling operators often play a vital role in local communities struggling to cope with growing levels of tourism, communicating reef conservation techniques and environmental awareness to both members of the local community and visiting diving and snorkelling tourists.
There appears to be some controversy in media coverage as to whether or not diving impacts reefs damaged by coral bleaching and why action is being taken so long after the event. Marine conservationists at last night’s meeting, are said to have blamed unregulated tourism – walking on coral, mooring boats over reefs and contaminating the water in the Andaman Sea, a region that draws thousands of tourists each year to enjoy it’s beautiful beaches and reefscapes. Sunan Arunnopparat said global warming was at fault.
A survey by Phuketwan today showed that the diving industry feels it has been made a scapegoat for the continuing failure of authorities to properly protect the reefs from illegal fishing and reef fish poachers.
It’s unclear why the widespread occurrence of coral bleaching has only just come to the attention of the authorities. By taking a look at the latest NOAA HotSpot report from yesterday – you can see that Thailand is not currently experiencing high sea temperatures.
Compare this to their report at the end of May last year:
Current media coverage seems to incude scant focus on the fact that there are vast areas of coral reef in Thailand that are undamaged or well on their way to recovery, despite the unusually warm water temperatures some 9 months ago.
Water temperatures right now are actually a degree or two colder than normal for the time of year and reefs located further south in Thai waters are positively flourishing at the moment.
Famous dive sites Hin Daeng & Hin Muang are attracting Manta Rays in numbers not seen for many years. There have been multiple Manta sightings every day for almost 2 months and both marine and coral life is positively glowing.
Coral bleaching, (the whitening of coral as it loses its natural pigment), is caused by a rise in sea temperatures which has been linked to global warming and El Niño.
Corals start to feel stressed when the sea surface temperature is more than 1°C above the average we expect to see in the hottest month.
During May last year, sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea rose to 34 degrees Celsius or about 4 degrees C above the long-term average. Even more important for corals, is build-up of warm-water stress over time. NOAA also maps this cumulative stress by adding up the HotSpots over a 3-month period. These are called Degree Heating Weeks (DHWs), which pinpoint areas where corals are at risk for bleaching. The status is updated twice per week, and the data is posted to the Coral Reef Watch website for the public to access.
Scientists use the NOAA Coral Reef Watch system to monitor coral reefs around the world – this data is available on Google Earth.
NOAA operates two polar-orbiting satellites, each with an infrared sensor that detects the temperature of the ocean’s surface. Because the satellites constantly orbit the earth, they measure the water temperature around the entire globe each day.
Using this technique NOAA maps ‘HotSpot’ areas that are higher than the expected maximum. Continuous monitoring of sea surface temperature at global scales provides researchers and stakeholders with tools to understand and better manage the complex interactions leading to coral bleaching. When bleaching conditions occur, these tools can be used to trigger bleaching response plans and support appropriate management decisions.
Coral bleaching is a growing global concern and the fact that the Thai government is taking this phenomenon seriously has got to be a good thing. Whether it’s a step in the right direction or a nail in the coffin of Thailand’s diving industry, action does need to be taken. By raising public awareness we have a better chance of taking the global steps desperately needed to slow down or reverse effects of global warming. It’s a shame that there is not a greater focus on controlling and enforcing illegal practices that would have a far more immediate and tangible benefit to Thailand’s reefs, rather than attempting to overcome mother nature.
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