Mass coral bleaching can result in nothing but dead coral rubble. | Pic by Atkinson Tan for Coralku

Now or Never for Malaysian Coral Reefs

Lack of action and funding ring the death knell for coral reefs in the face of warming seas, warns marine ecologist Sebastian Szereday.

CORAL REEFS are the ocean’s most biodiverse ecosystems and provide food, coastal protection and income for many Malaysians.

However, the current threats to coral reefs are acute, and as a coral reef ecologist, I am deeply concerned about the lack of action, management and funding for their conservation. Besides local damage, climate change has become the grim reaper of coral reefs. 

(Photo: Mass coral bleaching can result in nothing but dead coral rubble. | Pic by Atkinson Tan for Coralku)

The substantial rise in ocean temperature results in more intense and frequent marine heatwaves, leading to mass coral bleaching events.

These events cause a large number of individual corals to die off. Without hard corals, vibrant coral reef ecosystems become underwater deserts.

Mass coral bleaching has happened in Peninsular Malaysia multiple times, the latest being in 2019—2020. Three of these (1998, 2010, 2014—2016) were global mass bleaching events that combined, affected 99% of the world’s coral reefs.

At this rate, coral reefs will all but disappear, with an estimated decline of 90% by 2050.

Repeated occurences of warming seas see corals in Malaysia struggle to survive. (Sebastian Szereday)
Repeated occurences of warming seas see corals in Malaysia struggle to survive. (Sebastian Szereday)

As the latest scientific climate change report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC) suggests, the coming 8—10 years are very much our last chance to save coral reefs in Malaysia and elsewhere.

So what exactly do we need to do?

1. Reduce greenhouse gasses

First and foremost is reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) – the faster, the better. Saving coral reefs means reducing warming to 1.5°C. This prevents overall ‘climate catastrophe’, because what is good for coral reefs is good for human life.

However, the latest IPCC report suggests that this goal is no longer achievable, and we can expect to lose 70—90% of coral reefs under a 2°C warming scenario.

Climate crisis impacts

In Malaysia, climate change will continue to wreak havoc beyond coral reefs: the northeast monsoon season is predicted to intensify and cause more severe and frequent flooding; sea levels will rise and threaten coastal areas; extreme weather will disrupt supply chains of essential goods; and mass migration from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Philippines is possible.

Real action means reducing emissions as fast as possible. Prevention is better than mitigation, and as such, trading carbon stocks and trying to capture and store carbon instead of preventing its release are mere cosmetics.

2. Protect what we have

Next in line is protecting intact ecosystems and funding that protection. Consider the immeasurable future cost of runaway climate change.

The 2021 Malaysian floods cost RM 6.1 billion. One study estimated that without ‘optimal climate policy’, damage in Malaysia due to climate change will amount to RM 41.1 trillion by the end of  this century.

That cost is far greater than the cost of proactive ecosystem conservation. In my estimation,  effective management of Pulau Redang’s coral reefs would cost ~RM500,000—600,000 a year.

Tourist ringgit

How would that be funded? The Department of Fisheries estimates the economic value of Redang at RM354 million. Some of that income should be channeled to enhance enforcement and protection.

Likewise, at greater scale, the contribution of just 6 of the country’s 42 marine park areas (1,314.03 kmof the country’s total 4,006 kmcoral reefs) to GDP was RM8.7 billion annually in 2011—2015, according to the Department of Fisheries.

Not on par

However, investments in research, management, and coral restoration was miniscule, at only RM8.1 million.

Yes, coral reef management and restoration are large-scale conservation projects but lest we think they cannot be achieved, we must realise how little collective effort and funding have been accorded to coral reefs.

In Peninsular Malaysia, only a handful of people are working full-time to protect coral reefs, and even fewer people are working on a full-time basis to restore damaged reef sites.

How can we expect to solve a crisis without providing enough support and funding?

Proactive management

It is an undisputable fact that marine heatwaves are getting stronger and more frequent, just as we know that floods are going to be more severe and frequent in Malaysia. What prevention and mitigation schemes is Malaysia developing and implementing?

The country is currently ranked second last  out of 48 assessed countries in climate resilience due to the lack of climate resilient infrastructure.

This is reflected in coral reef management: it is simply inadequate to deal with local reef degradation.

Resilient coral like this one recovered four months after the coral bleaching event in 2019 in Pulau Lang Tengah. (Sebastian Szereday)
Resilient coral like this one recovered four months after the coral bleaching event in 2019 in Pulau Lang Tengah; coral resilience needs studying. (Sebastian Szereday)
3. Improve and coordinate coral research

We must urgently and significantly ramp up research to find heat tolerant corals and to uncover the reasons of such tolerance, if we are to propagate corals that might survive future conditions and to identify the most resilient reefs for better enforcement.

For this to be successful, a national coral reef research and restoration plan is required to implement resilience-based conservation and restoration.

Planting in isolation

This is urgent because presently in Malaysia, there is no coordinated resilience-based management or a coral restoration target.

Organisations work mostly in isolation, often using outdated or unsuitable techniques.

Fundamental scientific information needed to develop restoration plans and assessments of restoration efforts are almost entirely unavailable and therefore, what works and what doesn’t is mostly anecdotal.

No quick fixes

We need long-term restoration strategies which maximise the survival and resilience of corals in the face of future heatwaves.

But let’s remember that ecosystem restoration is not a quick fix, nor a short-term solution to deep-rooted problems, and protecting intact ecosystems is always the first priority.

Long-term success can only come through multilateral collaboration, long-term funding and climate action.

4. Work with locals on local concerns

Still, reducing emissions and restoring coral reefs at significant scale will not work in the long-term without addressing local issues.

Sewage discharge by resorts, overfishing, destructive coastal development and marine pollution have significantly reduced the health of coral reefs.

In fact, in Malaysia, these local impacts have thus far caused more damage than climate change (although this is changing rapidly).

Weak governance

These highlight the failure of centralised governance to proactively prevent unsustainable development, pollution and fishing practices.

Instead, reef managers are usually small groups of dedicated individuals who work relentlessly to solve these endless problems.

This is unsustainable, and there is an acute need to enhance local efforts to prevent further degradation, pollution and overharvesting of coral reefs.

Co-management roles

The good news is that in 2019, the government in Peninsular Malaysia has given local stakeholders and communities a greater role in ‘co-management’ of coral reefs through the Reef Caretaker programme.

This allowed community-based conservation projects, such as Cintai Tioman, to mobilise the local community to mitigate and manage negative impacts on coral reefs.

These initiatives are fantastic and should immediately be developed and implemented throughout the country.

Local communities

Those who live closest to nature are the best custodians of biodiversity and are also the most affected by the loss of functioning ecosystems.

These people need our support, because they protect the reefs that everyone loves and needs, and they ultimately protect what is good for all of us.

Healthy reefs benefit everyone but not everyone is doing their part to keep them healthy. (Sebastian Szereday)
Healthy reefs benefit everyone but not everyone is doing their part to keep them healthy. (Sebastian Szereday)
5. Encourage stakeholders to contribute

Dive centers and resorts are the first to profit from healthy coral reefs, but leave coral issues unaddressed.

Development of beach resorts on islands such as the Perhentians, Redang and Lang Tengah island,  for instance, has severely damaged shallow coral reefs; this is evident by the large amount of dead coral rubble on densely developed beaches.

All hands on deck

I believe that those who create the problem should also be responsible for fixing it. It does not require financial sacrifices, as many operators would argue.

Small contributions such as sponsoring SCUBA tanks, rooms and meals for conservationists and scientists significantly reduces the budget needed to deliver many conservation projects, especially in the long term.

I run a project in Pulau Lang Tengah made feasible through such collaboration. It is a simple example of how collective effort can enhance coral reef conservation without great financial sacrifice.

Less talk

Here are some final thoughts: As long as we emit carbon, the oceans will continue to absorb it, resulting in ever more heating of the oceans.

There is complete scientific agreement on the severe impacts of climate change on coral reefs and Malaysia is deemed vulnerable to climate change due to the risk of floods, coastal erosion and disease transmission.

The climate crisis is a societal challenge, and environmental organisations alone cannot protect and restore coral reefs without collective support and effort.

We must stop arguing about pennies, come together and take action because the communities who lose their reefs, seafood and dive sites to marine heatwaves, are losing their livelihoods, and the diverse wildlife that call these reefs home will disappear forever.

[Edited by SL Wong]

Sebastian Szereday is a Malaysia-based marine ecologist whose nonprofit organisation Coralku focuses on resilience-based management and restoration of coral reefs.



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