The Reef People: Connectivity with coral reefs for survival and threats to their existence in the Maldives

Years ago, life in the Maldives was simple. Back then, when there was little influence by technology, your alarm clock was the rooster emerging you from your warm bed at dawn. Upon waking, every Maldivian would begin their day with prayer. The story often begins with the father who will be the first to awake, have a cup of tea and head to the coral reefs, often called the Rainforests of the Seas, to catch breakfast – in the form of delicious fishes. In the meantime, the mother will commence cleaning the home and adjacent road, clearing the litter from the previous day. She will make the traditional Maldivian “huni roshi”, a flat bread or Indian roti variant with coconut. Next to emerge are the children, who will partake in the delicious meal. As the day progresses, the children will go swimming in the nearby reefs and perhaps will fish using a line with bait attached to a hook. Or perhaps they will swim and play on the white sandy beaches. This was the life as I remembered with my family as a child, like many Maldivians, decades ago.

The Maldives consists of more than 2000 individual reef structures which are bigger than 0.5 square kilometres. If we take account of newly forming corals and islands estimating this number will be a bigger challenge. Here, we have 26 natural atolls and 1192 islands scattered in the Indian Ocean. These reefs shelter thousands of different species of marine animals including marine turtles, sharks and fishes. We have unique reef structures which are uncommon in other parts of the world. In every aspect, the Maldives is a reef nation and its people are reef people.

Two decades past from that childhood, while sitting on my terrace in the capital city of Male’, I can still see the reef edge which is known to support more than a third (>150,000 people) of the population of Maldives. The most common feature of every Maldivian is their close proximity to the reefs and the ocean. If you are living in the Maldives, the furthest you can go away from ocean and reef is a few hundred meters.

Maldivians depends on reefs for almost every aspects of their life: from the fish they catch in the reefs which is the main source of protein to tourism based on the beauty and diversity of the neighbouring marine ecosystems and tuna fishing and processing. They live on islands primarily engineered and formed from coral debris. Happiness for many Maldivians is centred on the scenic beauty of beaches and turquoise blue water of reefs. This is the foundation of the Maldivian society, one based on our connectivity to our coral reefs. While the daily life of many Maldivians living in the islands remains fairly unchanged; the threats to coral reefs and reef systems have dramatically increased over the years.

Man-made climate change is a visible fact across the world and especially in the Maldives. The climate is changing, polar ice caps are melting, and the worlds’ coral reefs are experiencing frequent and severe coral bleaching. We see this everyday here. As temperature rises due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere this can lead to oceans becoming too warm as they absorb about 28% of all carbon from carbon dioxide stemming from fossil fuels burning, cement manufacturing and land use changes. When corals are stressed by changes in temperature, light or even nutrients (sediments from land use changes can often flow into nearby reefs), they expel the colourful symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white. This phenomena is called coral bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it does not mean it is dead. Some studies have shown that corals can recover within 12-15 years but only if there is little to no stress. Recently in the southern Maldives, 32 out of 33 genera recorded have seen bleaching events. As the environmental stress increases, the likelihood of a dying coral becomes a reality.

Even though majority of the Maldives islands are very sparely populated, the anthropogenic impacts are noticeable from almost every reef of the Maldives. My job monitoring the coral reefs of the Maldives has led me to dive in almost every section of the Maldivian reef system. The one thing that remains the same is the visible neglect and damage caused by human impacts – discarded plastic bottles and soft drink cans, plastic bags smothering and suffocating baby corals, discarded fishing gears and lines on which coral colonies have grown upon. Plastic pollution is a growing concern. A recent study in the Faafu Atoll showed widespread microplastic contamination, which can threaten marine life by blocking the digestive tract, by acting as a vector for invasive rafting species and diseases or by transporting and leaching toxic substances.   

The demise and destruction of coral reefs is a threat to the very existence of every Maldivian. All is not lost though. In 2016, the Maldivian Government showed its increasing concern by considering closing off access to the reefs as a result of extensive bleaching events which put 75% of all reefs out of action between 1998 and 2016. Through the recent and increasing environmental activism by young Maldivians, many hope that the Government and public can make further positive changes for coral reef monitoring and management including changing consumer behaviours. The recent address by the Maldivian President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, on 25th September 2019 at the UN General Assembly announced that Maldives will place a total ban on single-use plastics by 2023 – a global first, and a step in the right direction.

The question now remaining is how can Maldives work with other nations to ensure coral reefs have a fighting chance. Maldives on its own cannot stop or reduce climate change, despite the impact being felt here acutely.  

Published by Nizam Ibrahim

Mr Nizam Ibrahim is a current Senior Research Officer at the Maldives Marine Research Institute, the research arm of the Ministry of Fisheries, Marine Resource and Agriculture in Maldives. He completed a BSc in Environmental Management from Maldives National University and an MSc in Marine Science and Management from Southern Cross University, Australia. He led the monitoring efforts on El-Nino induced coral bleaching event in 2016.

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