By Mudassir Raja
Qatar Natural History Group (QNHG), a group that’s working to raise awareness about the natural beauty of Qatar, regularly organises talks on a monthly basis to underscore different aspects of Qatar’s architecture, landscape, flora and fauna.
The topic of QNHG’s recent talk, held at Doha English Speaking School, was the future of coral reefs: status and threats. Coral reefs are considered the rainforests of the sea with a wide diversity of amazing animals that depend on them for food and shelter. The talk gave an overview of the current condition of the world’s coral reefs, including Qatar’s reefs, the global and local threats to their survival and the outlook for their future.
The speaker on the occasion was Dr Greta Aeby, Research Associate, Qatar University. Dr Aeby obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii where she studied the evolution and ecology of a marine parasite. She completed post-doctoral training in Florida on coral bleaching and disease. She then returned to Hawaii and was faculty at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology where her lab focused on understanding coral disease in Hawaii and throughout the Indo-Pacific. She is now focused on researching coral disease in Qatar and other Middle Eastern regions.
In her presentation, Dr Aeby focused on importance of coral reefs as ecosystems and coral reefs in Qatar. She said: “Coral reefs are considered the rainforests of the sea with a wide diversity of animals that depend on them for food and shelter. In fact, 25% of all marine species depend, in part, on a healthy coral reef ecosystem. When coral reefs are lost then all of the other animal species that depend on them will disappear as well.”
The marine life expert further said that coral reefs provide critical ecosystem services to humans. “Healthy coral reefs support fisheries and tourism with an economic value of billions of US dollars. They act as a natural breakwater for ocean waves protecting coastlines from erosion.
“The main environmental conditions corals need to maintain their health is clean seawater so that the sunlight is available for the symbiosis, and an abundance of herbivores – fish and urchins that eat the seaweeds – to keep the marine seaweeds from overgrowing the corals”
She fears that coral reefs are under threat worldwide. “A 2011 report by World Resources Institute, Reefs at Risk Revisited, estimated that 75% of the world’s coral reefs were threatened. Threats harming coral reefs include overfishing, destructive fishing practices and problems associated with coastal development such as water pollution, and sedimentation. Plastic pollution is also a problem. Global threats include problems arising from climate change such as rising ocean temperatures and changing weather patterns.”
Dr Aeby noted that coral reefs have declined. “According to a report by Gardner et al. (2003) there has been a massive region-wide decline of coral reefs across the Caribbean, since the 1970s, with the average amount of hard coral cover reduced by 80%. Death et al. (2012) reports that 50% of the coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has been lost since the 1980s.”
She observed that the corals in Qatar represent a hardy subset of species from the Coral Triangle (Indonesia, Australia, Philippines) that are able to withstand the conditions found in the Gulf. “High ocean temperatures in the summer and high salinity are typical in the Gulf and Qatar’s coral reefs are adapted to withstand these extreme environmental conditions.”
Speaking about the threats to coral reefs of Qatar, the expert informed the gathering that Qatar’s reefs also suffer from overfishing, use of fish traps, coastal development, and desalination plants. Plastic pollution is just emerging in Qatar, and media campaigns to educate and encourage folks to use less plastic and to dispose of plastics properly would help protect Qatar’s marine resources.”
She added: “In collaboration with Dr Radhouane Ben Hamadou and Dr Pedro Range at Qatar University, we conducted the first coral disease surveys on the reefs of Qatar in March 2018. We surveyed nine offshore reefs and found 11 disease states. Disease was found to be widespread but occurring at a low prevalence (0.05-1.8% of the corals surveyed). This was an encouraging discovery for these remaining offshore reefs. Much more research is needed on Qatar’s reefs to understand these diseases before outbreaks become a problem.
“Dr Ben Hamadou and Dr Range of Qatar University are taking the lead to conduct the much-needed research to understand Qatar’s coral reefs. Research projects include surveys to document coral abundance, distribution and species richness, research on coral recruitment, reproduction, and on methods for coral restoration to help repopulate Qatar’s lost coral reefs.”
She concluded: “Qatar’s coral reefs are a national treasure that deserves protection and research is needed to understand and thus conserve these valuable resources.”
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