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Scientists Trying to Save Coral Triangle

December 7, 2007

By CHARLES J. HANLEY

KIMBE BAY, Papua New Guinea – For time beyond memory on this remote bay of neon fish and underwater gardens, people have avoided the “masalai,” taboo waters, where a monster octopus might lurk or spirits dwell in coral caves. Now it’s science that wants no-go zones in Kimbe Bay, and it’s because of a new fear.

From the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to the central Pacific, global warming and the sea’s rising temperatures have been “bleaching” and killing the world’s coral reefs.

It’s here in Kimbe Bay, and in the surrounding triangle of sea stretching from Indonesia up to the Philippines and down to the Solomon Islands, that the strange, beautiful form of life known as coral may someday have to make its last stand.

“The Coral Triangle is going to hold out, and it’s tremendously important that it does, because what’s holding out is the center of world marine diversity,” said marine biologist Charlie Veron, a world-renowned expert on reef-building coral.

The region, epitomized by this gorgeous, volcano-ringed bay on the Pacific’s western fringe, shelters more than half of all the world’s coral and 75 percent of its hundreds of species, from graceful fan and sprawling table-shaped types, to staghorn, elkhorn and brain coral. Half the world’s species of reef fish swim its waters.

Over eons, Veron said, the triangle “has exported this diversity to the rest of the world.” In other words, it’s coral’s homeland.

Veron, Australian author of the three-volume “Corals of the World,” spoke with The Associated Press at the U.N. climate conference on the resort island of Bali, where Indonesian and other regional governments this week were announcing a new partnership to protect the Coral Triangle.

The U.S.-based environmental group Nature Conservancy, working with Veron and other foreign and Papua New Guinean scientists, is leading the way here on New Britain island, with an ambitious plan to establish 15 restricted zones in the 3,300-square-mile Kimbe Bay.

It’s one of the first plans for “marine protected areas” dealing specifically with climate change.

The Nature Conservancy’s Annisah Supal, after escorting a visiting journalist on a morning’s underwater tour, said her Papua New Guinean neighbors don’t realize what they have.

“We tell them about the uniqueness of the bay, and they say, `Wow!’,” the young conservation officer said. “Kimbe Bay is a paradise, and our job is to preserve that paradise.”

Beneath the bay’s peaceful surface, “paradise” unfolds before goggled eyes in a rainbow of stunning variety – of hard coral in green and red, purple and white, of vividly striped clownfish and starfish of iridescent blue, of brooding groupers and darting flashes of finned indigo. Many depend on the reefs for food and shelter.

The bay, a vast collection of habitats, including isolated seamounts, coastal mangrove forests and seagrass beds, also is home to sperm whales and sea turtles, sharks and dugong. It has quietly become one of the premier scuba diving destinations on Earth.

Divers are increasingly disappointed elsewhere, as coral succumbs to warming and other ills.

Reef-building coral is a fragile organism, a tiny polyp-like animal that builds a calcium-carbonate shell around itself and survives in a symbiotic relationship with types of algae – each providing sustenance to the other.

Even a 1-degree Celsius – 1.7-degree Fahrenheit – rise in normal maximum sea temperatures can disrupt that relationship, leading to bleaching as the colored algae flee. If prolonged, the warming can lead to coral death.

In a series of landmark reports this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. climate-science network, said projected global warming indicates “bleaching will recur more often than reefs can sustain.”

That’s not necessarily so in Kimbe Bay and the Coral Triangle, Veron said. These arms of the equatorial western Pacific have experienced “pulses” of warm water over millions of years, conditioning coral to climate change, he said.

The key, he said, is to now protect these resources from other damaging pressures – land-erosion runoff, toxic agricultural chemicals, coral harvesting, overfishing and fishing by dynamiting reefs or poisoning reef fish.

For various reasons, chiefly related to New Britain’s relatively small, farm-based population, such pressures haven’t ruined Kimbe Bay.

“But as land is used up for agriculture, and plots become smaller and smaller, you see people turning their attention to the sea, using the sea,” said Ana Ban, head of a local environmental group, Mahonia Na Dari, or Guardians of the Sea.

“Before we get to the point where we can no longer save the marine environment, we should act,” she said.

With the aid of an advanced computer program assessing marine resources block by block across Kimbe Bay, the Nature Conservancy over three years developed its plan for 15 protected zones, ranging in size from 2 to 240 square miles, places where fishing, shellfish harvesting and other activities would be banned or restricted.

The political challenge, convincing communities to establish the zones, will be at least as daunting as the scientific one. The island waters of one “area of interest,” for example, are shared among nine New Guinean clans, all with a say over its use.

“Working with local communities can be difficult,” acknowledged Leo Bualia, the Nature Conservancy project manager here. His group has made progress, however, winning approval for marine management laws from the three local governments around the bay.

But in this poor, tradition-bound nation, only the clans could enforce the laws’ prohibitions – their ban on the use of “poison rope,” for example, a toxic root traditionally used to kill reef fish. Tradition can be tough to overcome.

“Women harvest giant clams by prying their shells from coral with an iron bar,” Supal said. “That damages the coral below. But it’s hard to tell them they must change.”

The conservationists believe, nonetheless, they’ll clear final hurdles to establishing two of the marine protected areas by year’s end, and hope next year for six more, out of the 15. In some cases, Supal noted, the new no-go zones incorporate the old – the “masalai” taboo areas.

Ultimately, the Nature Conservancy views Kimbe Bay as a “platform site” for expanding such preserves throughout the Bismarck Sea, a large swath of the Coral Triangle.

In the end, however, even the marine biologists’ best efforts may not fend off all the threats, since there’s a “gorilla in the cupboard,” as Veron put it – the growing acidification of the oceans, from their absorption of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, the prime global-warming gas.

More acidic waters make it more difficult for coral to produce their calcium carbonate shells. Researchers have yet to fully understand the implications, but the accelerating chemical imbalance in the seas spurred 50 Australian coral reef specialists to appeal urgently for action at the Bali climate conference.

“We call on all societies and governments to immediately and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” they wrote in a petition this October. “Without targeted reductions, the ongoing damage to coral reefs from global warming will soon be irreversible.”


Scientists Trying to Save Coral Triangle Scientists Trying to Save Coral Triangle


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