ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — On a boat off the coast of an island near Abu Dhabi, marine scientist Hamad al-Jailani feels and studies the corals, plucked from the reef farm and packed in a box of seawater. them carefully, to make sure they have not lost their color.
The corals were once bleached. Now they are big, healthy and ready to be returned to their original reefs in the hope that they will thrive again.
“We’re trying to grow them from very small fragments to — now some of them have reached the size of my fist,” said al-Jailani, who is part of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency’s coral restoration program.
The nursery gives corals the ideal conditions to recover: clear water with strong currents and the right amount of sunlight. Al-Jailani periodically monitors the growth of the corals, removes potentially harmful seaweed and seagrass, and even allows the fish to feed on the corals to clean them, until they are healthy enough to be moved.
The Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, or EAD, has been rehabilitating and restoring corals since 2021, when reefs off the coast of the United Arab Emirates bleached for the second time in just five years. EAD’s project is one of many initiatives – both public and private – across the country to protect the reefs and marine life that depend on them in a country that has come under fire for its large-scale developments and polluting industries that harm marine life. ecosystems. Some progress has been made, but experts remain concerned about the future of the reefs in a warming world.
Coral bleaching occurs when the temperature of the sea water rises and the glare from the sun washes away the algae that give the corals their color, turning them white. Corals can survive bleaching events but cannot effectively support marine life, threatening the populations that depend on them.
The UAE lost up to 70% of its corals, especially around Abu Dhabi, in 2017 when water temperatures reached 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit), according to EAD. But al-Jailani said 40-50% of corals survived the second bleaching in 2021.
While the bleaching events “wiped out a lot of our corals,” he said, “it also proved that the corals we have are really resilient … these corals can really withstand these kinds of conditions.”
Bleaching events are occurring more frequently around the world as waters warm due to human-induced climate change, caused by the burning of oil, coal and gas that releases heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Other coral reef systems around the world have experienced mass bleaching, most notably Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
How to limit global warming and its impacts will be discussed in depth at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in the UAE capital later this year.
The UAE is one of the world’s largest oil producers and has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions globally. The country has pledged to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050, meaning all carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced or offset in some way, but the goal has been met with analyst skepticism.
But bleaching due to warming weather isn’t the only threat to coral reefs around the gulf. Heavy oil tanker traffic, activities related to fossil fuels, offshore installations and the exploitation of marine resources are all putting great pressure on marine life, causing them to decline, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Environmentalists have also long criticized the UAE, and Dubai in particular, for its large-scale buildings and massive coastal developments.
Construction of the Palm Jebel Ali, which began more than a decade ago and has been shelved since 2008, caused a stir among conservationists after reportedly destroying about 8 square kilometers (5 square miles) of reef.
“More than 90 million cubic meters (23.8 billion gallons) of sediment was dredged and dropped, more or less on top of one of the remaining reefs near Dubai,” said John Henrik Stahl, the dean of the College of Marine Sciences at Khorfakkan University. in Sharjah, UAE.
The project was supposed to be similar to the Palm Jumeirah – a collection of small, artificial islands off the coast of Dubai in the shape of a palm tree.
Yet environmental projects persist along the coastline and in the emirates.
Development firm URB has announced it aims to grow 1 billion artificial corals in a 200-square-kilometer (124-square-mile) area and 100 million mangrove trees on an 50-mile stretch of beaches in Dubai by 2040.
Still in the research and development phase, the project hopes to create 3D technology to print materials that can house algae just like corals.
Members of Dubai’s diving community also encourage coral conservation efforts.
The director of the diving program, Amr Anwar, is setting up a certified coral restoration course that will teach divers how to collect and replant corals that have fallen after being knocked off by divers’ fins or a boat’s anchor.
“I don’t want people to see broken corals and just leave them like that,” Anwar said. they grow and watch their progress.”
But experts say unless the threat of overheating the seas due to climate change is addressed, coral bleaching will continue, damaging reefs worldwide.
Countries have pledged to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, after which scientists say the effects of warming on the planet could be much worse, some even potentially irreversible . But analysts say most countries — including the UAE — are still a long way from that goal.
“You have to make sure that the root cause of coral reef decline is no longer a threat in the first place,” said Khorfakkan University scientist Stahl. “Otherwise the recovery may have been in vain.”
Associated Press reporter Nick El Hajj in Dubai, UAE contributed to this report.
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