Corals pakistan bleaching
Once thriving coral reefs are now suffering, and dying at alarming rates globally. Coral bleaching has been reported in Pakistan for the first time. Image Credit: WWF Pakistan

Islamabad: During a diving expedition around the north eastern part of Churna Island, a Pakistani diver Khizar Sharif noticed serious bleaching of corals – an alarming sign of marine life degradation.

“It is the first time that bleaching of corals has been reported near Churna Island in Pakistan” WWF-Pakistan has expressed concerns. Large patches of bleaching were observed in some areas that WWF considers “a grave threat to the coastal biodiversity in Pakistan.”

Corals that resemble plants are actually animals, composed of colonies of many identical individual animals called polyps. Corals are said to be related to jellyfish and sea anemones.

Coral bleaching in Pakistan

The major reason for bleaching of corals in Pakistan is possibly “the rise in seawater temperature due to industrial activities as there is a thermal power plant, oil refinery and a single point mooring in the area near Churna Island” says Muhammad Moazzam Khan, WWF-Pakistan’s technical advisor for Marine Fisheries. Additional infrastructure developed at the site for construction of another coal powered plant is putting pressure on the marine life. Moazzam also warned that plans to establish liquid petroleum gas (LPG) terminal at the island can cause excessive dredging in the area. Such activities negatively impact the corals and may wipe out most of the rich biodiversity from the area, he said.

Churna Island

Churna Island is a small inhabited island of Pakistan located 9km west of Hub River along Balochistan coast in Arabian Sea. It is approximately 1.2 km long and 0.5 km wide. The average depth of the island is about average 8 meters with clear water. It is a rocky island, rich in aquatic resources and supports a myriad marine life including corals. Given the Karachi city’s proximity to the island, it is a popular tourist destination and attracts snorkelers, scuba divers and jet skiers.

Pakistan corals bleaching
WWF-Pakistan says that it is for the first time that bleaching of corals has been reported near Churna Island in Pakistan. Image Credit: WWF Pakistan

Demand to make Churna Island a protected area

Experts have called for measures to protect the rich biodiversity and pristine environment of the area. Protection of coastal habitats can “only be achieved by declaring Churna Island a Marine Protected Area (MPA)” says Dr Tahir Rasheed, WWF-Pakistan’s regional head Sindh and Balochistan. The decision has been pending with the government of Balochistan. In 2017, Astola Island was designated as Pakistan’s first-ever marine protected area.

WWF experts have appealed to the government to declare Churna Island as Pakistan’s second marine protected area to protect it from multiple environmental threats including plastic pollution, disposal of untreated sewage, use of harmful fishing nets, overfishing and rise in temperatures. The ghost fishing gear or abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear is “a serious environmental challenge in waters around Churna Island” with severe impact on corals as it continues to entangle fish and shellfish leading to their mortality, WWF raised alarms.

Corals in Pakistan

In Pakistan, corals are found in small quantities around Churna Island, Astola Island, Ormara (Roadrigues Shoals), Gwadar and Jiwani in Balochistan. Coral patches were identified along the coast of Pakistan under the Darwin Initiative Project. A total of 55 live coral species were recorded on limited areas in Pakistan, which is reportedly prone to environmental change and other threats, especially pollution.

What is coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching happens when corals lose their vibrant colours and turn white. Environmental changes such as abnormally warm or cool temperatures, light, or nutrients, can cause the corals to stress out and die. Corals can survive the bleaching but if the stress is severe or persist, it can lead to coral death.

What triggers coral bleaching?

Once thriving coral reefs are now suffering, and dying at alarming rates globally. The leading cause of coral bleaching is climate change as the weather is getting hotter and breaking historical records every year. Warming waters, pollution, overfishing, and other human activities are believed to be killing coral reefs around the world.

Why does coral bleaching matter?

It matters because coral reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on the planet on which people and wildlife depend. They support an estimated 25 percent of all marine life. Coral reefs are also are a source of food and new medicines.