A groundbreaking study of local coral reefs could pave the way for the future conservation of one of the earth's most uncharted marine resources.

We've walked on the moon and explored space, but we still know precious little about the rich and diverse world that exists on the ocean beds.

A few hundred leagues under the sea exists an exquisite marine world of prehistoric creatures that may be older than dinosaurs and is waiting to be discovered. It's the intricate web of coral reefs and found in the seas and oceans that are recognised by scientists as the world's most biologically diverse ecosystems.

More than 4,000 species of marine, flora and icro-organisms coexist beautifully in the labyrinth corridors of reefs around the world.

Marine biologists point out that coral reefs account for only 0.2 per cent of the ocean's area yet they provide a habitat for one-third of all marine species and also yield a fourth of global fish production! So environmentally and economically it makes sense for us to take care of our coral reefs.

What are coral reefs?

If you Google for "coral reef", you'll learn that reefs are warm, clear shallow ocean habitats that are rich in marine life. They are intricate structures formed from coral polyps.

As polyps divide, they grow and form coral colonies. Biologists have classified corals as animals because tiny algae called zooxanthelle that live inside the coral produce food using the sun's energy and carbon dioxide in water.

When coral polyps die, they leave behind hard, strong branching structures made of limestone. In fact the old coral reefs are more than 30 km thick and only a thin veneer on top forms the living part made of coral polyps and other organisms.

The rest is the limestone crust. As coral colonies build on top of each other, quite like apartments in a building, they form large and tall reefs, which are excellent breeding grounds for many marine animals.

Most marine animals and micro-organisms grow and propagate around the reef colonies. Reefs form complex habitats for many including sponges, sea anemones, fish, jellyfish, sea bass, crustaceans, turtles, sea snakes, snails, molluscs and a variety of algae, bacteria and fungi.

Scientists are yet to discover many of these species that might easily be prehistoric. In fact the oldest fossil reef is about 150 million years old and as newer and newer structures are formed upon them, colonies grow upon colonies.

The most established new reefs are 5-10,000 years old. Charles Darwin classified reefs into three types based on their location: fringe reefs that hug the coastline, barrier reefs that are far from the coast and form a lagoon, and atolls which form when an island sinks, leaving a doughnut-shaped ring.

Sadly, many ecological and manmade changes have desecrated their diversity and resulted in permanent damage. The main reasons for their destruction are climate change, which results in fluctuating ocean temperatures, increased salinity (too much salt kills micro-organisms), oil spills, incorrect fishing practices and marine pollution.

Reefs in the UAE

The UAE has its own national heritage of reefs in the Arabian Gulf and with so much damage happening to them, it has become incumbent on large organisations to come forward to revive, maintain and conserve the existing reefs as part of their active corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy.

It is heartening to note that Abu Dhabi-based Dolphin Energy has included the preservation of this diverse marine ecosystem in its corporate strategy.

Their unique strategic energy initiative involves production and processing of natural gas from Qatar's offshore North Field, and transportation of the processed gas through a subsea pipeline to the UAE.

In January 2005, Dolphin Energy initiated a 36-month coral reef investigation project on the 86,400 square km stretch of the eastern Arabian Gulf between Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

Among the organisations that actively collaborated with them were the Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS) in association with the World Wildlife Fund (EWS-WWF), the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), the Supreme Council for Environment and Natural Reserve (SCENR) Qatar and the National Coral Reefs Institute (NCRI), Florida, USA.

Describing the manner in which Dolphin Energy began the project, Graham Rae, vice-president for Quality, Health, Safety and Environment thinks of it as an inevitable and timely decision of his company.

"We were looking to do some community outreach projects and during our offshore surveys on the pipeline route we came across a lot of dead coral. The amount of dead coral surprised us. We decided to invite other agencies such as EWS-WWF and SCENR to embark upon an investigation programme. I think a series of things coincided and all the agencies involved understood the magnitude and seriousness of the issue. Our project goals matched, enabling us to conduct this successful three-year project."

In the nick of time

The project report has recently been published and it turns out the intervention was both timely and highly commendable, as it helped save a priceless marine heritage that is significant not only to the two countries involved but to the ecology of the world.

The main purpose of the project, which cost Dolphin approximately $650,000, was to study the distribution, diversity, abundance, composition and health of the corals.

The report first establishes the significance of reefs along with associated mangroves and sea grass habitats that play an important ecological, economic, recreational and cultural role in the UAE and Qatar.

It cautions that these critical habitats are degrading rapidly and it calls for sound conservation and management measures and sustainable development strategies to be introduced.

The principal objectives of the project were:
- To create inventories and map the coral reef habitat
- Investigate the diversity and conditions of the coral reefs identified
- Assess the status of reef fish and benthic (under water) life forms
- Develop capacity of UAE and Qatari research personnel
- Develop conservation and management of regime
- Increase conservation awareness amongst stakeholders

The project was successful in all aspects. Detailed satellite imaging, more than 1,800 dives, setting up of 12 stations for permanent coral monitoring, documentary film production and more have all helped towards creating a purposeful body of work, not only for the present but for future generations as well.

More than 30 UAE and Qatari nationals were trained in coral reef management and conservation techniques, and inventories for coral reefs were drawn up with over 2,000 "ground truthing" points (regular data collection points).

"It is the international year of the coral reef this year," says Graham, "and we are glad that we launched the project and delivered the deliverables. We had a team of engineers and scientists with environmental expertise who worked with the implementation agencies. In this case the government, the NGOs, industry and academics came together from the two countries and this was unprecedented.

"Corals don't recognise boundaries of countries. We wanted to send across a conservation and protection message. Three years was just to initiate the project. But it marks the start of a long journey of collaboration and cooperation between the two countries for the sake of conservation.

"We plan to come out with a story book on coral reefs that will demystify them for the common man and it will talk about the importance of preserving this marine habitat for future marine stocks and the importance of conserving a legacy for future generations."

Charting the success

The initiative was also able to produce a large-scale map of the entire marine survey area using Landsat-TM and Aster imagery. Image mosaics (tiled together photographs) were produced, covering the entire
survey area, including the most critical parts.

These images were geo-referenced and geo-corrected against the info retrieved through "ground truthing" and then installed on EAD and SCENR computers.

Imagery has also been collected for a fine-scale map of Bu Tinah shoal, the area between Ras Hanjurah and Ras Ghanada in Abu Dhabi and Al Halul in Qatar. The most positive outcome of the project was finding that all is not lost on the coral reef front.

The team discovered that although overall coral biodiversity is depressed and coral coverage is at low levels, there are clear signs of coral resilience as reefs show active signs of regeneration. There have been no extinctions of any coral species.

Active recruitment and reproduction indicates that the remaining coral is in good condition and health. There is hope for full recovery with systematic protection and management of the reefs.

"We at Dolphin Energy believe that this is not a one-time project, but an ongoing journey for coral reef conservation," says Graham. "We always want to be involved in supporting socially responsible and sustainable development. We take this quite seriously. The success of the project has been a fitting testimony to the vision and values of the leaders of the UAE."

A conservationist's perspective

Razan Mabarak, the managing director of Emirates Wildlife Society in association with WWF (EWS-WWF) who were major partners in the Coral Reef Investigation, provides the ecological reasoning behind the project.

Why are coral reefs considered so important for marine biodiversity?

Coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on earth. Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species and are thus indeed comparable to the tropical rainforests. It is possible that another 1 to 8
million undiscovered species of organisms are living in and around reefs.

In the Arabian Gulf, situated in a hyper-arid area with relatively low biodiversity on land, the coral reefs of the region are the biological treasure chest housing most of the region's biodiversity.

In many areas, this biodiversity is considered key to finding new medicines for the 21st century. Many drugs are now being developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses and other diseases.

How many metres below sea do these reefs extend?

Coral reefs are found in the deep and shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf. This particular project provided a synoptic overview and a map of exactly where coral reefs occur in Abu Dhabi emirate and Eastern Qatar.

Coral growth is widespread throughout Abu Dhabi's and Qatar's territorial waters. Reef corals can be found growing in variable densities on all offshore islands and banks as well as near all major headlands on the emirate's mainland.

What is the present health of the coral reefs in and around
the UAE?

The prognosis is encouraging as many of the reefs are in good health. The reefs have been severely impacted by natural and man-made disturbances and due to this we have lost at least 27 per cent of our coral reefs globally.

The Arabian Gulf is one of the areas most severely affected by the loss of coral reefs. According to recent estimates, 30 per cent of the coral reefs are at a threatened-critical stage and up to 65 per cent of the coral reefs may have been lost already due to natural causes (fluctuation of temperatures, diseases), and anthropogenic stresses.

Abu Dhabi and Qatar are rich in corals and coral reefs occur around all offshore shoals and islands and near all major headlands on the mainland coast. Many of these reefs are in good health but an almost equal amount has been severely impacted.

What needs to be done for their protection, conservation and growth?

Coral reef conservation needs to be incorporated into national environmental strategies. We need to foster and coordinate local and regional agreements on coral
reef issues.

Even the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is affected by environmental pollution and natural causes. How do you propose to conserve it?

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is one of the world's largest and best known coral reef systems, composed of roughly 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for 2,600 kms over 344,400 square km.

The government of Australia created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 1975 and defined what activities were prohibited there.

The park is managed, in partnership with the Government of Queensland, through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to ensure that it is widely understood and used in a sustainable manner.

A combination of zoning, management plans, permits, education and incentives (such as eco-tourism certification) are used in the effort to conserve the Great Barrier Reef.

Is this three-year project enough or are there strong future plans to continue saving the reefs?

This project marks the beginning of a long-term plan for conservation of coral reefs and other ecosystems.

It provides a baseline and proposes a direction to be taken for marine conservation and for the sustainable use of our natural resources.

The project has called for integrated coastal management and an increase in education and awareness about our natural resources. The project also identified areas to be designated as marine reserves such as Ras Ghanada in Abu Dhabi and Al Halul in Qatar.

Is it possible to artificially stimulate the growth of coral reefs or the colonies of marine creatures that live around
the reefs?

Artificial reefs at the cost of natural ones are posing a threat to corals today. In an area where there are no reefs, perhaps the issue of artificial reefs can be looked into.

The corals are our national heritage and ecological treasure. All of us need to work in tandem to protect and preserve this legacy for our future generations.