07 March 2005

Post-tsunami coral reef assessment done in Thailand

Two new surveys of Thailand's coral reefs show the impact of the Asian tsunami was highly varied, but with most damage identified within the country's national marine parks.

Some of the world's most diverse coral reef ecosystems are found in Thailand within a 12,000 square kilometre block, including a 200km stretch of the Andaman coast from Ranong to northern Phuket and extending 60km out to sea to include the Similan Islands, the Surin Islands, and Phra Thong Island. Some 600 species of coral reef fish, as well as four species of endangered marine turtles and many other marine species, are found within this area.

"As tourism in the Andaman Sea relies on healthy marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, an important first step is to assess the actual damage to the reefs caused by the Tsunami and decide what action needs to be taken as a response" said Robert Mather, Director of WWF Thailand's Programme Office.

An initial coral reef assessment conducted by local dive operators near Phuket, and within the Surin and Similar archipelago, showed that out 70 sites, 13 were found to have suffered heavy damage. Another survey of 174 sites coordinated by Thailand's Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) showed that 13 per cent were highly impacted.

"The 13 per cent of coral reefs which suffered high impact - over 50 per cent damage - were concentrated in some of the country's well known dive sites, including in the Surin and Phi Phi Islands," Mather said. "Damage to the Thailand's coral reefs showed no obvious pattern, but as one might expect, exposed shallow fringing reefs and coral with delicate structures suffered most."

Fish and other marine life appear to have not been as affected as the coral reefs, although many bottom-dwelling marine organisms have disappeared. According to another DMCR survey, approximately 70 per cent of a total of 80 square kilometres of seagrass beds along the Andaman coast revealed generally less than five per cent damage.

Experts believe that overall damage caused by the Tsunami was actually quite small. In fact, many of the coral reefs in Thailand's Andaman Sea were already significantly damaged before the December 26th tragedy struck Southeast Asia, which by some estimates killed up to 300,000 people. In Thailand, over 5,000 people died, many of them foreign tourists vacationing on the popular beaches of Phuket, Khao Lak, and Phi Phi Island. Among the fatalities were three Marine National Park rangers, as well as two local people working on the Naucrates Turtle Conservation project on Phra Thong Island. All twelve of Thailand's Marine National Parks on the Andaman coast were closed.

"Pollution, global warming, habitat destruction, and overfishing these insidious dangers are the real issues that need to be addressed so as to maintain the health of the reef ecosystems that so many local livelihoods in both the tourism and fisheries sectors depend on," Mather said.

"It is important to consider not only the need to rehabilitate the damage caused by the Tsunami, but more importantly, to consider the overall needs for improving coral reef management in Thailand."

WWF is calling on Thailand's Department of Marine and Coastal Resources to follow through with plans to conduct more detailed assessments of severely impacted reefs, and to conduct long-term monitoring of recovery. The global conservation organization is also urging dive operators and individual divers adhere to codes of conduct for "best practice" standards, prevent illegal trade in souvenirs and other marine species products, report any illegal activities in marine parks, and support the call for appropriate legal and policy reform (including the establishment of Marine Park Management Boards) to improve coral reef protection and management.

?Only when these measures are put into place will all the corals damaged by the Tsunami have an opportunity to recover,? Mather added.

Tsunami impacts on well-known dive sites

Surin Islands: Some of the shallow hard coral fringe reefs show damage around Ao Chong Kad. Sites in the deep straits between Ao Pak Kaad and Torinla Island suffered the most extensive damage, with Ao Pak Kaad and the shallow corals of Torinla Island suffering medium levels of impact. In the Surin Marine Protected, the biggest coral reef colony at Laem Mae Yai was partly damaged but still in relatively good condition. Reef fish monitoring shows continued high diversity and abundance. There is also a high diversity of reef crabs and shrimps.

Similan Islands: Damage appears to be limited to the shallow part of some fringe reefs. A few of the rock formations had soft coral removed by the tsunami current. Highly popular dive sites such as Fantasea Reef, Sunset Point at Similan Island 4, Deep Six, West of Eden and Pusa Rock at Similan Island 7, North Point and Breakfast Bent at Similan Island 9 are in fine shape. However, the China Wall site on the south-east of Similan 4 and Snapper Alley on Similan 9 suffered the worst damage.

Ko Tachai: Some damage was reported in the shallows. Twin Peaks is undamaged.

Ko Bon: Minimal damage to The Ridge.

Shark Point and Hin Daeng: Unaffected.

Richelieu Rock: No damage, but the strong current moved some of the rubble at the base of the rock.

The Burma Banks: No damage.

For further information:
Robert Mather
Director, WWF Thailand Programme Office
Tel: +66 2 524 6745
E-Mail: mather@wwfthai.org


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