Is saving our reefs... A LOST CAUSE?

With 88% of region's coral reefs under threat, greater effort must be made to protect them
Chou Loke Ming, Straits Times 31 May 08;

Reefs of islands used by the Singapore military in live-firing exercises are among some of the healthier ones in the country.

MENTION 'coral reef' and the aquamarine expanses of Australia's Great Barrier Reef come to mind.

Less known is that one-third of the world's coral reefs are in South-east Asia, concentrated in seas covering a mere 2.5per cent of the earth's ocean surface.

All groups of reef plants and animals are present, in a wealth of bio-diversity seen nowhere else, which reinforces the region's status as the global centre of coral reefs.

But the great natural heritage of the region has been badly hit by economic development.

While damage has been ramped up since the boom of the 1970s, the regional alarm bell was sounded for the first time in 1993.

Of 49 reefs monitored in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, experts found less than one-fifth in good condition, based on live coral cover.

The assessment was the first based on monitoring of coral reefs, a capacity developed through the Asean-Australia Living Coastal Resources Project. It was estimated that degraded reefs had risen by 70 per cent in the preceding 50 years.

The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network of the International Coral Reef Initiative established an informal network of reef scientists in 1998, making regional assessments possible every two years.

It found that 88 per cent of what remains of South-east Asian reefs are under threat by human activities.

Human impact on coral reefs is varied, including coastal development, marine pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing. During the 1960s and 1970s, coastal development and pollution caused extensive loss and degradation.

By the 1980s, destructive fishing (mainly blast-fishing using explosives) became rampant, destroying large tracts of reefs, including those in remote areas that were once thought of as 'safe'.

Techniques soon evolved into another form of destructive fishing - poison fishing, where fish hiding in reef crevices are stunned by a cyanide solution squirted into the tight confines. The poison silently kills corals and smaller reef organisms that form the reef's ecological fabric.

As the world's appetite for fish increases amid the collapse of international stocks, destructive fishing practices are on the rise, making sustainable use of reef resources seem an almost impossible mission.

Protecting our reefs

ONE of the most common ways to safeguard reefs is to establish Marine Protected Areas. But while the figures sound good on paper - more than 430 areas have been declared - the truth is that they comprise only 8per cent of the region's reefs.

What is worse, only 10 per cent of protected areas are effectively managed by surveillance, for example, to ensure there is no illegal fishing.

Because our reefs are an important food and climate regulation source, their destruction means a loss of what was once considered an infinite food supply, as well as ecological services such as coastal protection, carbon fixation to use up global-warming gases and environmental quality regulation.

Reefs provide for free, services which would cost millions of dollars annually to run. As they degrade, human engineering is necessary to replace some of the lost services.

An example is the construction of sea walls for coastal protection. During the 2004 Asian tsunami, reefs in good condition gave better coastal protection from the force of the tidal waves than damaged ones.

The demise of reefs also means a significant decline of food supplies critical to coastal communities.

Then, there are the recreational benefits. Divers are always in search of pristine reefs and a well-protected reef attracts considerable tourist dollars. A healthy and well-managed reef is worth a lot of money. In fact, the annual economic gain from healthy reefs is estimated at $500,000 per square kilometre. Why then, are reefs constantly under threat?

One can only attribute it to ignorance or opportunistic short-term plundering. Long-term sustainable use is something myopic management fails to recognise because benefits are to be shared with future generations. To them, long-term sustainability is irrelevant to their limited term of governance.

Amid this dismal outlook, is there any hope of saving South-east Asia's reefs?

There are a few cases of effective management, which can and should be replicated to reverse the reef-degradation trend.

One of the best-known cases of a coastal community transforming a degraded reef that had been severely damaged by blast-fishing and overfishing to one that supports sustainable fisheries is that of Apo Island in the Philippines.

The 800 inhabitants of this small island realised in 1982 they had damaged the surrounding reef by overfishing. On the advice of reef scientists, the villagers stopped destructive fishing and set aside a quarter of the reef as a marine sanctuary.

The sanctuary is a protected zone operating as a 'no-take' area.

No one is allowed to fish or extract anything from this zone and even scientific investigations are limited to non-destructive methods.

The sanctuary replenishes the remaining reef, so much so that the entire community has been able to fish at a sustainable level since.

The reef now supports 650 reef fish species and 400 coral species. It now attracts coastal tourists and generates additional income.

The success of this community-organised sanctuary demonstrates the effective role of local communities.

In the Philippines, community-based management is now widely implemented, with mayors of some local districts supporting moves to galvanise the community to halt reef destruction.

Transferring this management capacity across countries is the next step in the battle.

The small village of Blongko, in Indonesia's North Sulawesi, has a 1,200-strong population largely dependent on fishing.

It learnt from the Apo Island marine sanctuary, and went on to establish the community-managed Blongko marine sanctuary 10 years ago.

Other forms of reef management have emerged in the region.

Resort operators with buildings close to good reefs, for example, acknowledge the importance of maintaining reef health as the beautiful corals and fish attract guests.

Some operators even provide resources to cash-strapped government agencies and help pay for boats and fuel for surveillance.

Unintentional protection

UNINTENDED reef management is seen in areas that prohibit visitor access because of security concerns or private-lease arrangements.

Reefs of islands used by the Singapore military in live-firing exercises are among some of the healthier ones in the country.

In Sattaheep, south of Pattaya, Thailand, the reefs are in excellent condition as they lie within a naval base that is off-limits to the public.

A good example of effective management in a region where enforcement is, for the most part, weak or symbolic is the strong protection given to reefs surrounding small islands that attract swiftlets to nest.

The birds roost in caves of these islands and their nests are harvested to produce bird's nest which can fetch up to $5,000 per kilo.

In the Gulf of Thailand, operators paying to harvest the nests take measures to ensure no one goes near the island. Some even hire guards armed with machine guns.

As no one ventures near the islands, the reefs are completely protected and in the best of health.

These different modes of reef protection show that positive action can be taken to prevent the habitat going to waste.

At national levels, more committed policies are needed to conserve reef resources.

Management effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas needs strengthening and review to target larger areas of coral reefs as only 8 per cent of the region's reefs lie within them.

But, as the success stories have shown, the picture is not totally dismal, and much can be done to save our watery treasure troves.

The writer is a professor at the National University of Singapore's Department of Biological Sciences, and has been involved with coral reef management research throughout South-east Asia. He has been a member of the scientific and technical advisory committee of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network since its formation in 1996, serving as chairman from 2003 to 2005.

Family Walks at Sentosa: June and July -- registration now open

5 June is World Environment Day!

Join the Naked Hermit Crabs in their mission to showcase the diverse marine life and natural beauty on our shores.

They will bring you on a mini adventure to a beautiful natural shore tucked away in a corner of Sentosa.

Suitable for kids in K1 and K2. A great outing for the family!

There will be lots to see. Just read their previous blog entries on trips to Sentosa.

Registration is required. Walk-in are NOT accepted.

There used to be a $5 per person charge for the Sentosa walks. But this year, the Sentosa walks are sponsored by Transitions Optical. So the Sentosa walks are FREE this time round!

More details on the adventures with the naked hermit crabs blog

Bearded fish and other low tide highlights

It has been another exhilarating series of low tide trips, with a dive at Pulau Hantu as well.

All kinds of intriguing marine life were encountered, from nudibranchs to new snails and strange fishes with beards.

The Hantu Bloggers just had another fabulous dive at our wild reefs at Pulau Hantu.

Besides the ever endearing "Nemos" there were lots of sightings of nudibranchs, hard corals, a big fat Cushion star!These small red feather stars are seen both by divers as well as intertidal explorers. It's nice for us non-divers to see what they look like underwater!Our reefs are very much alive!

The Sisters Islands have among the best reefs that are accessible to the public. These reefs can be explored even by non-divers at low tide. Although the Sisters Islands have been reclaimed and sea walls built to create swimming lagoons, the reefs have slowly crept back to reclaim their original locations.

A brief visit during a not-so-low tide gave glimpses of reef fishes, living corals and this heartening sight of a Giant clam growing on a hard coral!There were also encounters with this intriguing moon snail, which a blog reader has suggested to be Tanea areolata. It looks like a gourmet chocolate snack!It was a fishy day at Cyrene as the working team gently find out more about the fishes on this special reef in the middle of our port.

The lush seagrass meadows there are home to these strange fat Alligator pipefish (Syngnathoides biaculeatus).And several Bearded filefishes (Anacanthus barbatus)! These elongated fishes do indeed have a little goatee.This was also the first trip to Cyrene opened to others outside the working team. Selection is via a blogging contest. And the first winner is Gloria (in white , fourth from the left)!Changi is often dismissed as reclaimed land. But marine life have reclaimed their place on these shores, delighting those who take the time to see them.

Changi's last natural rocky shore was teeming with nudibranchs! This particular cow-like nudibranch (Chromodoris tumulifera) with blotchy spots is seldom encountered.
While the pretty Hypselodoris infucata is more regularly sighted. Four were seen at a Changi trip!Changi is also full of stars! While Rock stars (Asterina coronata) are generally well camouflaged , sometimes, bright orange ones are seen.Recent sightings suggest Knobbly sea star juveniles are settling on the seagrasses of Changi.Other marine life encountered include octopus, bright orange sea cucumbers, sea urchins and all kinds of crabs. The creepiest find were lots of hairy, scary fireworms: Do NOT TOUCH is the correct approach to these creatures.

Other shores visited included Ubin's less famous shores. Here fiddler crabs enthralled resulting in a flurry of video clips of their amusing antics.
Observing things washed up on our shores also lead to questions: Are there seagrasses off the East Coast? and why are they so many dead mud crabs on Changi?

There were also lots of trips to other shores, with public walks at the Chek Jawa boardwalk, and walks at Semakau and Changi. Here's the many blog posts of the trips by destination, from the wildsingapore google reader.

New fad in Singapore: exotic marine aquarium pets

Today, there is an article highlighting the fad for exotic marine creatures in home aquariums.
Some fish collectors are now hooked on more exotic marine creatures - the type you would more usually see on your dinner plate than bobbing around your neighbour's aquarium.

Hermit crabs, seahorses and shrimps are some of the novelty creatures now making a splash as pets.

A few fish fanatics have even taken the plunge and are pampering stingrays.
What do you think about this fad?

Aqua wonders
They suck, they sting, they even bite, but people are filling their aquariums with these exotic marine creatures
Tan Yi Hui, Straits Times 25 May 08;
full article on wildsingapore news

Reef Briefs (May 08)

Here's a quick summary of some recent international articles on reef and marine issues.

Dr J.E.N. Veron, leading coral specialist, highlights the plight of the Great Barrier Reef. He says "here I am today, utterly convinced that the Great Barrier Reef will not be there for our children's children to enjoy. Unless we dramatically and immediately change our priorities, and the way we live".

Indeed a study finds growing ocean acidity may erode coastal ecosystems due to rising carbon dioxide emissions. At one spot in northern California, waters acidic enough to corrode seashells now rake the shore, researchers point out.

While a wave of predatory starfish decimate Palawan’s reefs. One possible reason, "most of the predators that provide a natural control mechanism for the starfish are long gone". These include Napoleon Wrasse (Mameng), Harlequin Shrimp, Giant Triton (Budyong) and larger types of pufferfish.

Cyclone Nagis in Maymar highlights the importance of our coastal habitats. The ASEAN chief and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says Myanmar cyclone damage worsened by loss of mangroves and IUCN urged Myanmar to restore mangroves, reefs and other natural barriers to protect against natural disasters. While WWF says environmental protection vital to reducing natural disaster impact.

There's some good news in global marine biodiversity: WWF reports record birthrate of leatherback turtles in Costa Rica, while a study reports population increase in the North Pacific humpback whales,

On the other hand, reports suggest that the majority of oceanic shark species face extinction as a result of over-fishing. A report suggests weddings boost shark's fin consumption in Singapore, while there are reports of health hazards of eating shark's fins due to high mercury levels.

While a blue whale nursery threatened by fish farms.

You CAN make a difference

In Singapore, join upcoming activities and efforts for our reefs and shores.

Visit Cyrene Reef, a special reef in the middle of our port. Join the blogging contest to get a seat on upcoming working trips to Cyrene.

In Malaysia, to celebrate International Year of the Reef, a group of volunteers is surveying the reefs on several islands in Malaysia under the Sustainable Island Programme.

7 Jun (Sat): Reefwalk at Kusu Island -- registration now open

Our wild and wonderful coral reefs are just too exciting to be enjoyed by divers only! Non-swimmers are most welcome, as we only visit the reefs during low tide, so you only expect to get wet around your ankles at most.

Registration now open!

Trained and enthusiastic volunteer guides will introduce you to the marine life found on Kusu Island and share reef stories.

Suitable for children.

Pre-registration is required.

Time: 6a-10am
Venue: Marina South Pier
Cost: $15/person

Upcoming Chek Jawa specials this week

This week, get a glimpse of work done for Chek Jawa, before deferment, and just last year! Want to see Chek Jawa for yourself now? Join the free guided walk on the Chek Jawa Boardwalk by the Naked Hermit Crabs this coming weekend!

19 May and 26 May: Screening of "Remember Chek Jawa"

“Remember Chek Jawa” is an independent documentary by Eric Lim. It chronicles the efforts of individuals who volunteered to help out with Joseph Lai’s biodiversity survey of Chek Jawa, one of several efforts that would provide feedback to government.

Many efforts and factors eventually contributed to the deferment of reclamation at Chek Jawa. Eric Lim was particularly inspired by one element that he witnessed - the efforts of the ordinary, urban Singaporean’s efforts to help out a tiring, muddy and incomprehensible biodiversity survey, at a time when all hope had been lost.

The video shoot was sporadic and conducted between July 2001 - 2004. Post-production was an ongoing process from 2001-07 whenever my schedule allowed. It was finally completed in March 2007. The film was first unveiled at Wildlife Asia on 13 Mar 2007.

More about the film on the Remember Chek Jawa website.

Time: 9.30-10.30pm
Venue: Sinema Old School, 11B Mount Sophia, #B1-1.
Cost: $5/$4 student concession
Contact: 6336 9707 or

24 May (Sat): A talk on "Life and death at Chek Jawa"

Mr. Loh Kok Sheng will talk about "Life and death at Chek Jawa: a UROPs research experience in Life Sciences"

Mr. Loh graduated from Serangoon Junior College and joined NUS in 2005, majoring in life Sciences with specialization in Biology. In July 2007, he received the MOE Teaching Award. Mr. Loh has great interests in ecological work and did an UROPS project under the supervision of N. Sivasothi, Peter Todd and Dan Rittschof. His project aimed to study the mass mortality and recruitment of macrofauna at Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin. Since the project has application value in understanding and conserving the Singapore macrofauna at Chek Jawa, Mr. Loh’s achievement has been featured in Embracing passion, NUS Advertorial and The Straits Time (March 25 2008). In this talk, Mr. Loh will share with the audience his experience in project work (UROPS) in Life Sciences and highlight those qualities that he has developed through this project as a junior scientist.

More about the project and talk on the Chek Jawa Mortality and Recruitment Project blog

Time: 2-3.30pm
Venue: LT27, Department of Biological Sciences, the University of Singapore

25 May (Sun): Free Chek Jawa Boardwalk tour with the Naked Hermit Crabs

photo by Andy DineshThe Naked Hermit Crabs introduce you to Chek Jawa without getting your feet wet. Enjoy the great view and find out more about rare coastal plants, cute fiddler crabs, aggressive mudskippers, sturdy mangrove trees, interesting bugs and more!

The free walk will be held every the last Sunday of the month. You don’t even have to sign up. On each public walk day, a few of the volunteer guides will be stationed at the Chek Jawa Info Kiosk in front of House No. 1 at Chek Jawa. The Crabs will trial this format for 4 months and then review it after that.

Group size? Come in small friends and family groups of around 6 people or fewer. We expect to have a few guides volunteering each time, but cannot guarantee that we will have a lot of guides. Please …. don’t organize a huge company group and show up at our free walk-in tours. We will be overwhelmed and you will go away very disappointed.

Time: 3 pm meet at the Chek Jawa Info Kiosk
Duration: Two hours
Cost: no charge for now, but donations accepted.

Star Tracker! A new sea star programme

In a galaxy nearby, stars are being observed!

A team of volunteers have started an important project to learn more about our Knobbly sea stars.

The recent launch of the study at Cyrene Reef identified 62 unique individuals!

Cuddly and lovable, individual sea stars can be told apart! Some have already been given names such as "White Chip".

These beautiful stars are unfortunately listed among the threatened animals of Singapore, primarily due to habitat loss. Thus learning more about them will help us understand how to protect them.

Read more about the programme on the nature scouter blog and star tracker blog with details of what is a Knobbly sea star and why we should track them, what to do when you see a Knobbly sea star and sightings on Cyrene on 9 May and 10 May!

“Let’s go to Cyrene Reef” blogging contest

Want to go to Cyrene Reef? Now is your chance!

In conjunction with the "I want to go Cyrene Reef" Facebook Group, the Naked Hermit Crabs will be organizing several working trips to Cyrene Reef in the coming months and 2 lucky persons will get a chance to join these trips.

More details on the leafmonkey blog.

Chek Jawa May Day outreach touches hearts

"To many of us who spend more than 10 hours a day in the office, this May Day 2008 outreach event is an excellent opportunity for us to reach back out to nature, to contribute our little effort to make a difference and to reflect on what other things we can do to save the environment."

Joseph Lai has shared some of the heartfelt responses of those who participated in the May Day outreach at Chek Jawa.

"Our Precious Gem: I always thought that we have to travel very far to see 'live' underwater creatures in Tioman or somewhere in Malaysia or in other further shores. I remember when we paid our first visit to Chek Jewa few years back, we were so thrilled to see that we have these little beautiful creatures moving around in Singapore shore."

"As a parent, I could not wish for a better project for my child to undertake. He learns more about environment and social responsibility, science and art, community and humanity, from people who are passionate about them."

Read all the comments on the flying fish friends blog with links to more about the event.

Big, Beautiful and Bizarre: low tide highlights

Here's some incredible encounters during the last week of low spring tides. Among them were stunning creatures Big, Beautiful and Bizarre!


The most stupendous encounter so far must be this gianormous stingray seen on Changi! It was very much alive! It eventually slid off into the darkness with a flap of enormous fins and a flick of its tail.
Another unusually large marine creature was this a sea star encountered at Pulau Sekudu. It was bigger than a foot (literally)!This is Luidia maculata, an eight-armed sea star that is not commonly encountered. Those seen previously were about palm size.

On Cyrene Reef, another intriguing large sea star was encountered.Dubbed the "Blonde Knobbly", confirmation is still pending on whether it is something other than the commonly encountered Knobbly sea star.

Cyrene Reef is also one of the few intertidal areas where Cushion stars are commonly encountered. These are sea stars that resemble pillows.
The Beautiful

This gorgeous jewelled sea anemone was discovered on Cyrene Reef!It is seldom seen and is possibly Alicia sp. What a lovely name for a lovely creature.

Meanwhile, equally beautiful discoveries on the East Coast were seen. Colourful sea fans were very much alive there!These are branching colonial animals, which in turn harbour tiny snails, brittlestars, hermit crabs and other marine life! It's a colourful miniature forest.

And a cute never-seen-before sea anemone at Pulau Semakau. Identification is still pending.
The Bizarre

Some TeamSeagrass volunteers finally managed a close up look at truly cryptic sea stars at Semakau. These stars are generally well hidden under stones and in crevices.
Another odd find was this strange sea cucumber on Cyrene Reef. Identification is pending consultation with the experts.TeamSeagrassers encountered a monitor lizard having a soak among the corals in the reefs of Pulau Semakau!
Some less happy situations

Unfortunately, not all is always well with our shores.

Volunteers visited Pulau Sekudu to check on marine debris there and found several fish traps.
All kinds of fishes and crabs are trapped. Of these, only a few are considered marketable and most are thrown away half dead or dead. These issues are discussed on Slipping Through the Net. The animals were released and traps removed. Fish traps and abandoned driftnets were also seen at Cyrene Reef.

Meanwhile, there was a look at Sentosa's natural shores, right next to the ongoing reclamation for the Integrated Resort.The 'Nemo' that is usually in this large anemone wasn't to be found.

There was also coral bleaching on Sentosa's reef.Soon, massive reclamation working on the new Pasir Panjang Container Terminal will start, right next to Labrador Nature Reserve and opposite Sentosa's nature shores on Tanjung Rimau and near Cyrene Reef.

You CAN make a difference!

Volunteers are hard at work to learn more about our shores.

TeamSeagrass held a monitoring session at Pulau Semakau despite the rain.While volunteers helped map Cyrene Reef and started a programme to monitor the many marvellous Knobbly sea stars there.

Working on this submerged reef requires punctuality with regard to the tides. Here's a hilarious look at what can happen if they miss the tides on the way home ...The full sequence on LOLZCyrene.

Many shores were visited in the last six days of low tide. Here's the many blog posts of the trips by destination, from the wildsingapore google reader.

Divers take action for coral reefs

Your actions count. Sign your commitment to coral conservation.

Pledge your support for coral reef conservation by signing Project AWARE’s International Year of the Reef Pledge
  • Tell at least three people how reefs enrich our lives
  • Participate in at least one coral conservation activity this year
  • Be an AWARE Diver
  • Reduce your carbon footprint
  • Refuse to purchase coral products
Sign your commitment to coral conservation.

PADI also announces the AWARE Coral Reef Conservation Course as PADI Specialty of the Year.

To support International Year of the Reef PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) have declared the 2008 Specialty of the Year as the AWARE Coral Reef Conservation Specialty.

Divers and snorkelers can learn about the vital role coral reefs play within our ecosystem. Be inspired, rescue the reefs and use your diver training to address important ecological concerns. Learn more about the course.

Cyrene Star in the news!

The sea star discovered on Cyrene Reef is in the news today!

A new star for Singapore
Discovery of large five-rayed sea star adds to marine biodiversity here
David J.W. Lane , Robin Ngiam & Ivan Tan, Straits Times 3 May 08

SINGAPORE has a new star to call its own.

This large five-rayed sea star is not new to science, but it is a new and spectacular addition to Singapore's already substantial inventory of living stars.

Lacking a common name but known in the marine science world as Pentaceraster mammillatus, it is in the same family as the more familiar cushion star and the knobbly sea star, which are still quite common on Singapore's remaining reefs.

The 'mammillatus' part of the name refers to the rows of nipple-like protuberances that cover the surface of the animal and give it a studded or armoured appearance.

The sea star was first sighted early last month on a seagrass monitoring trip at Cyrene reef, run by volunteer group TeamSeagrass and staff from the National Biodiversity Reference Centre of the National Parks Board (NParks).

Fast forward to a week ago: Armed with a permit, an enthusiastic search party made up of staff and students from the National University of Singapore's Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, NParks and others - including visiting regional echinoderm specialist David Lane - set out for a dawn low-tide walk on Cyrene reef.

A rare and exciting find

THE discovery of this attractive species, one of about a dozen of its kind in the Indo-Pacific, is in some respects a remarkable surprise, given its large size and the fact that sea stars and their relatives had been intensively surveyed and studied throughout the 1990s by a team of NUS and Belgian marine scientists.

Another surprise is that this star was previously known to exist only in the western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, so its presence in Singapore waters represents a considerable range increase.

Full article on the wildsingapore news blog

Learn more about Cyrene Reef!
Learn more about Singapore's sea stars