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EcoDivers discover whole coral reef has vanished in past year

By Rob Gordon

It’s cold in Hoi Ha Wan, the air temperatures have dropped and my instructor is steering the inflatable along the edge of Coral beach, a well-known and much surveyed reef in the Hoi Ha Wan MPA.  The coral cover here is good – a large mainly Pavona colony. Interestingly it’s feeding during the day – that’s unusual. Ah no – someone has dropped anchor in the middle of the bed, very inconsiderate as there are proper anchor points. You need a permit though. An MPA – Marine Park Area is a specified (in law) area where activities are restricted. You cannot fish or remove anything from the park. You also need a permit to moor in the park. All done so that some of the best corals in Hong Kong are protected.

Why am I here? I have wanted to be an EcoDiver since I qualified as a diver. Now I am doing my EcoDiver (Reef Check) Instructors course.  For the last 3 years I have been involved with a local college that teaches Reef Check as part of its IB platform for the services requirement part of the IB. I teach open water, part of the Reef Check program and am the “assistant” team scientist there. Historically, Reef Check began in Hong Kong.

 

On a global scale the importance of reef function and its contribution to our survival on this planet are well documented, along with many of the major ecosystems (e.g. forests, freshwater systems, etc) coral reefs are under threat from anthropogenic pressures. Combine this with natural ecological pressures; storms, tsunamis and geologic catastrophes; and these fragile systems are at high risk of permanently being lost.

These natural systems can be likened to a pulse in a patient. If it’s strong and regular we’re ok, if it’s thready and weak, the patient (us) is in trouble. The pulse of the world is weak; we are in trouble, marine and terrestrial species are disappearing at an alarming rate the effects of which aren’t always immediately apparent and the loss mourned by few.

The situation often looks so hopeless, take the plight of the rhino and elephant in Africa and the loss of apex ocean predators (sharks). But the importance of trying was made very clear to me by Paul, my Course Director for EcoDiver. His passion and enthusiasm for all things ecological is very impressive.  And he has been battling more than a few giants along with some very dedicated unsung eco heroes (like Defend Hoi Ha and WWF). It is common knowledge that the developers are making headway into the country parks, every loophole and every opportunity for development is fully exploited and before you know it – more housing in the country park.

Money talks and God knows it works, I have seen its cancerous spread in my home country, Zimbabwe. Sadly, I am used to seeing the fat cat win. It’s hard to take them on – it’s an epic goliath vs. David battle, but if we remember that story, who eventually won? Yup David, so it is possible. And although it seems hopeless it is worth trying. You can do your own small bit, on land or in the water. Or you could just sit there and moan …. Won’t get you anywhere will it?

Anyway I digress; the main thrust of my story is this; part of my course requires me to survey numerous reefs and compile reports on them. Paul asked me to do Moon Island (Mo Chau (Mashed Potato)). So on a cold morning off we went – and now we come back to us in the inflatable, Paul, Leo and I. Paul tells me to hop out and lay the transect line along the southern edge of the island over a small wall of corals. Off I went and soon I was back – “No coral Paul”. “BS says the boss; there should be over 30% cover”. Paul hops in and takes a look – we end up laying our line along a forlorn line of rock, sand, coral fragments and occasional RKC – recently killed coral. There is no evidence of there having been any coral, or very little. The area is packed with the Long Spine Urchin Diadema setosum full of coral skeletal fragments and Drupella sp. Snails are etched into the dead coral grazing algae. If we look at the 2015 Reef Check Moon Island sits at 32.7% coral cover and this is slightly up on the 2014 figure. Between the Reef check 2015 (somewhere in October and September 2015) and Now (Jan 2016), this reef was totally destroyed – gone.  Have a look at the AFCD Reef Check Website for the Moon Island results:

(https://www.afcd.gov.hk/english/conservation/con_mar/con_mar_cor/con_mar_cor_hkrc/files/Summary_2015_Eng.pdf).

Moon Island Reef January 2016:

It takes no training to see there is a big problem here, where did the coral go?  There important question is why? Now the work begins to try and discover what went wrong and can it be fixed? 

The importance of this discovery cannot be underestimated. This is a serious blow for the MPA (Marine Park Area) and the conservationists attempt at keeping the colonies going. Urgent action will be needed to find the possible cause and stop other coral colonies in the area from disappearing. Reef Check does an incredible job but this particular case highlights the importance of continual monitoring and vigilance of the corals in the MPA. It’s a bit like taking a pulse in an injured patient – the more frequently you do it the earlier you pick up a problem and act before the damage becomes irreversible. 

People Power /Citizen Science

What is citizen science? It’s a method of collecting scientific data accurate, quality data about ecological systems in a simplified way that the bulk of the data can be collected by NON SCIENTIFICALLY trained volunteers. In other words it’s kept simple so simple folk like us can do it easily and accurately.  With minimal training volunteers can be used to collect data about an ecosystem that can be used to monitor changes within that system and pick up changes that may give scientists a heads up for an impending problem. This data may be presented as evidence to governing bodies and authorities for planning and management purposes, but more importantly, it can be used to inform communities of a negative effect. As it may well be with the ongoing developments in Hoi Ha. Destruction of terrestrial ecosystems (like mangroves) and increases in effluent output along with toxic run off from building sites could have easily contributed to this catastrophe. Have a look at: (http://www.chinadailyasia.com/hknews/2016-01/27/content_15378949.html)

The data collected must be accurate. This means there has to be a system of quality assurance. Reef Check (www.reefcheck.org/) and CoralWatch (www.coralwatch.org) are examples of data collection and environmental monitoring that make use of citizen science.  This data is then processed by the bodies concerned and made available for use in dealing with Environmental issues.

So how can you become a part of a reef check team?

There are many Reef Check teams in Hong Kong, you have to just find one and ask to join. The best place to see “What’s happening” is to monitor the AFCD Reef Check Site.  Another option is to take part in the regular Reef Check Monitoring and training run by Splash Hong Kong (www.splashhk.com) throughout the year or email me on rob.gordon@splashhk.com.  Reef Check Training (EcoDiver) is run by splash and there are many dive specialties that spin off from this (Fish identification, underwater naturalist, Coral Monitor and many, many more)

Schools EcoDiver Projects

The EcoDiver program provides schools with enormous science and service based programs. Schools can have dive teams trained that run their own data Reef Check / Coral Monitoring programs that can be ongoing (or any other marine research project). Students can be trained and encouraged to develop projects here in Hong Kong (and abroad). Schools may be able to adopt a reef and continuously collect usable scientific data that may be used in conjunction with school education programs including IB programs. Many of the PADI specialties and EcoDiver will act as credits for University or college entries. And there is enormous positive impact on the community that can come from these projects for the schools at home or on overseas projects.

Rob Gordon 03 February 2016

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  1. Protected porpoises and dolphins at Hoi Ha. A Buzz Exclusive – Sai Kung Buzz

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