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Undersea " Forest "  Face Destruction, Too

By Burmese Writer

Under the crystal green water sit some creatures that seem to squat like aliens on the sea floor. They are what scientists call "the rain forests of the sea": coral reefs.

But these images are not real. It is just a slide show being presented by Sombat Poovachiranon of the Phuket Marine Biological Center.

Sombat, a specialist in marine ecology, says that at least 250 species of coral have been identified in the Andaman Sea. But most of the coral found along the 740 kilometers of Thailandís Andaman coastline running from Ranong to Satun is now dead, he adds.

Both human activities and natural disturbances are rapidly destroying coral reefs, which provide food and shelter for numerous marine species, and serve as a barrier for coastal areas.
Coral is a marine animal with a rock-like skeleton. It grows in colonies and collectively builds up its limestone skeleton in various shapes resembling, for instance, antlers or flowers, according to Sombat.

Reefs are crucial for coastal areas because they protect shorelines from being hit by big waves. And the coral also absorbs carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, from seawater.
Sombat explained that coral gets most of its nutrients from algae which live within coral tissue in a symbiotic relationship. But the algae need clear water, constant salinity and a good environment to carry out photosynthesis, a process used by various plants, animals and microbes of converting light into food.

According to Pisit Chansanoh, president of Yadfon Association, a Trang-based non-governmental organization, the discharge of waste water from communities and industrial plants has caused severe damage to coral reefs.

Mass tourism development also contributes to the destruction. "Coral are damaged by tourists such as scuba divers who step on them. Many tourist boats also drop their anchors on the coral and break the reefs," says Sombat.

He points to Phuket as an obvious example of a place where tourism development has led to the demise of reefs. Tourist numbers there have jumped from 20,000 in 1976 to 2.4 million last year.
Deforestation and near-shore construction may have the greatest impact among human activities, according to Sombat. Development causes sediment to run off into the sea and it gets stirred up during the rainy season, clouding the waters and preventing the coral receiving enough light. Without light, there will be no photosynthesis and soon the coral will die.

"The reef flats, the areas nearest to the shore, are very seriously damaged by people walking on the coral," says Sombat. "For the reef edges next to the reef flats, generally fifty percent is in good condition. The most secure area are the reef slopes which are located in deeper areas. There, around 70 percent of the coral is still alive."

Another obvious culprit, he says, is climate change Ė including global warming and El Nino. Global warming leads to more disturbances in the weather, such as early rains and unusual storms, which can do great damage to coral reefs, especially if severe storms hit at low tide.

Also, most types of coral are very sensitive to even a 1-or 2-degree Celsius increase in temperature, which can turn the coral white. This phenomenon, know as "coral bleaching", will kill the coral after two or three months. Experts believe some areas can recover within three months, if the phenomenon does not last.

"If we want to protect our coral reefs, we should follow these four rules: donít stand on the coral, donít break them, donít drop anchors on them and donít litter on them,"  says Sombat.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that El Nino will follow such rules.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.