Singapore joins bid to save corals

International workshop focuses on breeding habits
Grace Chua, Straits Times 7 Apr 10;

SINGAPORE scientists have been roped in to help an international effort to conserve coral in the region.

Some 20 scientists and aquarium curators from countries as far away as the Netherlands have been huddling at St John's Island for the past week, discussing how to save corals by studying the way they breed.

The workshop, called Secore (Sexual Coral Reproduction), aims to help public aquariums breed their own corals, preserve existing habitats and find ways to restore damaged reefs.

The workshop, which began last Wednesday and ends this week, is being held in South-east Asia for the first time. Previous workshops were held in Puerto Rico and Curacao in the Caribbean.

The organisers decided to come to Singapore this time around as more is known about coral spawning here than in other South-East Asian countries.

Corals are tiny animals or polyps that form colonies, gradually building up into a reef as they grow. Most corals spawn during one or two brief seasons a year, releasing millions of eggs and sperm in synchrony.

From the fertilised eggs, larvae are hatched, and they drift on the tides and can settle thousands of kilometres away.

Corals can also reproduce asexually, by breaking off into bits that drift a short distance and settle to the ocean floor.

But sexual reproduction is the organisms' main method of crossbreeding and spreading their genes to a broad area.

Dr James Guest, a coral specialist at the National University of Singapore, explained yesterday that only a few thousand coral larvae survive each breeding season. The rest are mainly eaten by predators. The Secore workshop, he said, aims to find ways to cultivate the larvae in the lab, thus boosting their survival rate.

Once this is done, the tiny coral polyps can be bred at the Underwater World aquarium on Sentosa to stock its own tanks and avoid depleting wild coral populations. Others will be used for scientific studies.

For instance, a species like the lettuce coral, named for its lettuce-leaf fringes, seems to be more resistant to warming waters than others, thriving even in Singapore's murky waters, and scientists want to understand why.

The studies may even have economic benefits, which is what the workshop's sponsor, Dutch hydraulic-engineering firm Eco-Shape, is banking on.

Some of the researchers are trying to find the optimal conditions for coral growth, and how long coral polyps should be reared before being returned to the seabed.

Their work may one day help with the restoration of damaged reefs.

Dr Guest said another important area discussed at the workshop was public awareness and education.

This is especially relevant in Singapore, where corals are part of the country's biodiversity and natural heritage, he said.

'There are 255 species of corals recorded here, and there may be some corals here that were around before Stamford Raffles arrived,' he said.

On this front, Singapore is doing well. Several groups are already conducting activities that raise awareness of Singapore's marine and shore life.

Singapore to help coral effort
Grace Chua, Straits Times 6 Apr 10;

SECORE participants setting up a collecting net during a night dive at Raffles Lighthouse. Eggs float into the cup at the apex of the net and are brought back to labs at the Tropical Marine Science Institute, St John's Island. -- PHOTO: UNDERWATER WORLD

SINGAPORE scientists have been roped in to help an international effort to conserve coral in the region.

Some 20 scientists and aquarium curators from countries as far away as the Netherlands have been huddling at St John's Island for the past week discussing how to save corals by studying the way they breed.

The workshop, called Secore (SExual COral REproduction), aims to help public aquariums breed their own corals, preserve existing habitats and even find ways to restore damaged reefs.

It is being held in South-east Asia for the first time. Previous workshops were held in Puerto Rico and Curacao in the Caribbean.

The organisers decided to come to Singapore this time around as more is known about coral spawning here than in other South-East Asian countries.

Corals are tiny animals or polyps that form colonies, gradually building up into a reef as they grow. Most corals spawn during one or two brief seasons a year, releasing millions of eggs and sperm in synchrony.

Read the full report in Wednesday's edition of The Straits Times.

Corals flourishing on our doorstep
Ester Au Yong, my paper AsiaOne 7 Apr 10;

IN FUTURE, visitors to Underwater World Singapore may be able to see beautiful corals that it has reared, and learn about the coral reproductive stages without getting wet. It hopes to rear juvenile corals and put these marine animals on display as part of its public-education programme.

Its assistant curator, Mr Roy Yeo, 32, said: "We hope to also be able to raise the public's awareness that Singapore's waters (are) rich in biodiversity and that we should do our part in preserving it."

In the long run, Underwater World Singapore hopes to conduct coral-breeding programmes, re-introduce corals into the wild and play a role in future coral-reef restoration here.

Representatives from Underwater World Singapore, including Mr Yeo, are among 18 scientists and researchers learning coral-rearing and reproduction techniques at a workshop being held in Singapore and South-east Asia for the first time.

The participants come from all over the world, including the Smithsonian Institution in the United States and the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands.

In the eight-day workshop, which ends today, they went on dive trips off Raffles Lighthouse on Singapore's southern coast to see coral spawning - the release of bundles of egg and sperm into the sea by corals.

They also collected these bundles for their breeding programmes and research.

The workshop was scheduled to coincide with the yearly mass coral spawning here, first documented only in 2002.

The parcels of egg and sperm float to the surface, where fertilisation occurs if they mix.

A microscopic larva then forms and settles on a hard surface, like a rock. It transforms into a sedentary coral polyp, which multiplies to form a colony. Only one in thousands of eggs completes this process, with the rest being eaten by fish and other marine life.

Participants also attended lectures on coral-conservation issues and laboratory sessions on sexual coral-reproduction techniques at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Tropical Marine Science Institute's field station on St John's Island.

Mr Yeo said learning these techniques will raise the chances of coral-larva survival in specially designed and monitored aquarium environments.

The workshop was organised by NUS and Sexual Coral Reproduction (Secore), a non-profit network of public aquariums and coral scientists with expertise in coral-reef conservation.

It was funded by the Building with Nature programme, an applied-research programme initiated by the Dutch dredging industry, and administered by EcoShape, a foundation set up to coordinate over 15 partner institutes in the programme.

Visiting scientists and researchers were impressed by the coral spawning they saw here.

Mr Michael Laterveer, 46, of the Rotterdam Zoo, said that during his dives, he managed to see "multiple species of coral spawn over several nights, which was amazing".

Dr James Guest, 38, of the NUS, who was the first person to document coral spawning here and has studied it for the past eight years, said this bodes well for Singapore.

He said: "The number of coral species here that reproduce at around the same time is as high as on other Indo-Pacific reefs, like the Great Barrier Reef... "(This shows) how rich Singapore's natural heritage is. Diverse, functional and fascinating coral reefs, that people would normally associate only with countries like Australia, occur right on our doorstep."

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