Coral bleaching in Thailand: 18 dive sites closed to save coral reefs

Bangkok Post 21 Jan 11;

Eighteen popular diving sites will be closed for up to 14 months to allow coral damaged by bleaching to recover.
Over 80% of the coral at each diving site had been damaged, National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department chief Sunan Arunnoparat said yesterday.

Bleaching, or a whitening of coral as it loses its natural pigment, is caused by a rise in sea temperatures which has been linked to global warming. The dive sites which have been closed are in seven marine national parks.

They are the Hat Chao Mai National Park in Trang, Mu Koh Petra and Tarutao national parks in Satun, Mu Koh Chumphon National Park in Chumphon, Hat Nopparat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park in Krabi, and Mu Koh Surin and Mu Koh Similan national parks in Phangnga.

The coral bleaching, which has been growing more serious since April, is said to be the worst in 20 years.

Up to 90% of coral in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea has been bleached.

The department chief said he could not say how long the dive sites would be closed but diving activities probably would be banned until the end of the monsoon season in October.

Marine national parks would be closed for six months during the monsoon season.

Mr Sunan said curbs would be imposed on tourist visits to some sites, and public awareness of marine life conservation would be promoted in other measures to deter bleaching.

A task force will monitor the situation and issue measures to speed up coral rehabilitation, he said.

Praput Khorpetch, vice-president of the Phangnga Tourism Association, said the association was willing to cooperate with government efforts to protect marine life.

"We don't want to see just a closure of national parks to rehabilitate coral.

In fact, we want to see the government and private tourism operators work together to find a long-term solution," Mr Praput said.

"The Marine and Coastal Resources Department should not blame just the tourism sector for this problem. We received the message and have made an effort to limit the number of tourists but we don't have the power to do that. The government should impose a strict law on this issue."

Suchart Sirankanokkul, president of the Thai Hotels Association Southern Charter, suggested the government set up a meeting with tourism operators in the affected areas to discuss solutions to the problem.

Thailand closes dive sites to halt damage to reefs
Jutarat Skulpichetrat Reuters 20 Jan 11;

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand is closing dozens of dive sites to tourists after unusually warm seas caused severe damage to coral reefs in the Andaman Sea, one of the world's top diving and beach resort regions, authorities said on Thursday.

More than half of southern Thailand's 15,000 hectares of coral reefs are suffering from bleaching, or the shedding of coral colors, a phenomenon caused largely by rising sea temperatures over an extended period, officials said.

"We will study the cause and effect and find a way to restore them," Sunan Arunnopparat, director of the Department of National Parks, told Reuters, adding that the reefs will be closed across seven national parks.

"This is part of an effort to restore the reefs."

He declined to say how many diving spots would be closed or how extensive the damage was to the reefs. He said diving sites where bleaching had spread to 80 percent of the reefs would be shut for an unspecified period.

The coral bleaching -- whitening due to heat driving out the algae living within the coral tissues -- was first reported in May after a surge in temperatures across the Andaman Sea from the northern tip of Sumatra island to Thailand and Myanmar.

Other parts of Southeast Asia have also suffered. An international team of scientists studying bleaching off Indonesia's Aceh province found that 80 percent of some species have died between May and August.

Marine conservationists blame unregulated tourism -- walking on coral, mooring of boats over reefs and contamination of the water in the Andaman Sea, a region of sparkling blue-green waters and pearl-white beaches that draws thousands of tourists a year.

But Sunan said global warming was at fault.

Between April and late May, sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea rose to 34 degrees Celsius or about 4 degrees C above the long-term average, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Hotspots website. (See: here)

Coral bleaching involves the loss or expulsion of single cell algae (zooxanthellae) which normally live within the coral tissue and give it a brownish coloration. Loss of the algae sees the coral skeleton become visible through the transparent tissue giving the coral a bleached white appearance.

Bleaching occurs when coral is under stress from high temperatures, strong light and low salinity. Coral can only recover from minor bleaching.

"We did not close all of the national parks, just some of the dive sites. Tourists can still go see the forests and the mountains in these parks," Sunan said.

(Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Jason Szep and Sanjeev Miglani)

Phuket Reef Diving Closures to Begin on Friday
Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison Phuketwan 19 Jan 11;

THAILAND will begin closing seven ''hot spot'' coral reef sites off Phuket and the Andaman Coast from tomorrow, intending to keep the sites closed for up to five years.

Closures include diving sites in the Similan Islands, Surin Islands and Phi Phi.

The dramatic move was announced tonight by the Director of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Planned Conservation, Sunan Aroonnopparat following a meeting in Bangkok that included marine biologists and researchers.

The verdict will bring consternation among Phuket and Andaman dive operators who mostly do not see how continued diving inhibits or disturbs renewed coral growth.

An exceptionally hot period in 2010 maintained water temperature at a high level for so long that 50 percent of corals or more in some areas died from bleaching.

Khun Sunan said tonight that the closures, which could be wound back within three years depending on coral regrowth, would ensure the coral reefs recovered.

The ban on diving would also assist any potential bid by Thailand for UN World Heritage listing for Phuket and the Andaman region, based on its marine treasures, he said.

The list of diving sites where divers could from tomorrow incur a penalty of between 1000 baht and 10,000 baht is:

In Phang Nga province - Mo Koh Surin Island, Ao Sutep, Ao Mai Ngam, Koh Ster, Ao Pakkard; Mo Koh Similan, East of Eden, Ao Faiwab.

In Krabi province - Nopparat Thara Park, Phi Phi, Hin Klang.

In Satun province - Hat Chao Mai National Park, Koh Cher; Mu Ko Phetra National Park, Koh Bulon Mai Pai, Koh Bulon Don; Koh Tarutao National Park, Kohtakiang, Koh Hin Ngam, Koh Rawi, Koh Dong.

In Chumporn province - At Mo Koh Chumporn, Koh Maprao.

A large number diving companies centred on Khao Lak in Phang Nga are planning to meet on January 26 and expected to express dissatisfaction with aspects of the marine bans.

The dive companies are: Khao Lak Scuba Adventures; Sea Dragon Dive Center Khao Lak; IQ Dive; Liquid Adventures; Similan Diving Safari; Octavia; Big Blue Khao Lak; Wicked Diving Khao Lak; Kompas Dive Center; Geo Dive; Kon Tiki Khao Lak; Sea Bees Khao Lak; Wetzone Dive Center; Siam Adventure Divers; Private Holiday Dive Center.

Don't Pick On Us, Say Phuket, Andaman Ban Divers
Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison PhuketWan 21 Jan 11;

CONFUSION and anger rippled through the Phuket and Andaman diving communities today in the wake of a hasty government decision to close many prime popular diving sites in seven marine parks.

The logic behind the closures eludes the dive companies, who do not see themselves as being responsible for the natural phenomenon of coral bleaching.

Many are now concerned that the ban on diving at 18 key sites in the seven marine parks - six along the Andaman coast - will simply lead to overcrowding at other popular spots that are in some cases outside marine parks.

Coral reefs off Phuket are popular but not included in the marine parks, so pressure is likely to grow at these sites to the point where some dive industry people believe they could be quickly destroyed.

A survey by Phuketwan today showed that the industry feels it has been made a scapegoat for the continuing failure of authorities to properly protect the reefs from illegal fishing and reef fish poachers.

One dive company owner, who preferred not to be named, said: ''Of course this will have a huge effect. But the coral reefs have bleached because of a natural occurrence. We dive deep to 18 metres or beyond.

''Have the researchers been down that deep? There's no bleaching at that level. This is where the best-trained divers go. Yet they too are banned, and for no good reason.''

She said that there was no denying there had been damage to reefs in shallow waters, but divers who had been properly trained never touched the reefs and so never damaged the underwater environment.

''Snorkellers are the biggest danger because the reefs closest to the surface are the ones that suffered most in the bleaching and they are the ones that sometimes are also damaged by people who haven't been taught not to touch them.''

One species of coral, Acroporidae, had been particularly harmed but different species responded to the bleaching in different ways.

''I'm not sure that the minister has been properly briefed on this issue,'' she said. ''The result is confusion and possibly greater damage to other parts of the reefs that will now become overcrowded.''

She added that there didn't seem much point in the Tourism Authority of Thailand spending millions of baht promoting tourism and diving when the government authorities suddenly decide not to let people go diving.

''Airlines, resorts, restaurants, tuk-tuks, taxis, people on tour boats will all suffer reduced income because of this thoughtless move,'' she said.

Resorts had been asking and getting 7000 baht a night two years ago, but with 1500 baht now the asking price at the same resorts, she feared some resorts along the Andaman coast would inevitably be forced to close because of the government diving ban.

There is no indication yet how the closures will be enforced. For decades, illegal fishing has continued on and around marine parks, even though divers have been calling on the authorities to enforce the protection laws.

Dive industry workers are also suspicious that it could be part of an as yet unspoken attempt to improve the reefs to enhance Thailand's potential to win UN World Heritage listing for the region.

However, with the authorities' lack of ability to enforce current regulations, such a bid inevitably seemed doomed to fail, divers said.

Dr Wannakiat Tubtimsang, Director of the Phuket Region Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, said Phuket was a conservation area but not a national park.

''We must follow the act on Phuket,'' he said. ''The number of boats, the number of people diving, must be recorded and controlled. Pollution and big numbers are damaging some of the sites.

''Now at the east of Racha Yai [probably Phuket's most popular diving spot] and Koh He, the quality of the tourists is not good. How can we improve the guide quality and the quality of the divers?

''The problem is just as much about the people as it is about coral bleaching or global warming.''

The list of diving sites where divers could from today incur a penalty of between 1000 baht and 10,000 baht is:

In Phang Nga province - Mo Koh Surin Island, Ao Sutep, Ao Mai Ngam, Koh Ster, Ao Pakkard; Mo Koh Similan, East of Eden, Ao Faiwab.

In Krabi province - Nopparat Thara Park, Phi Phi, Hin Klang.

In Satun province - Hat Chao Mai National Park, Koh Cher; Mu Ko Phetra National Park, Koh Bulon Mai Pai, Koh Bulon Don; Koh Tarutao National Park, Kohtakiang, Koh Hin Ngam, Koh Rawi, Koh Dong.

In Chumporn province - At Mo Koh Chumporn, Koh Maprao. (in the Gulf of Thailand)

Diving sites to be closed for a month
The Nation 21 Jan 11;

More than a dozen diving sites in seven national marine parks will be closed today for at least a month as authorities seek ways to arrest coral bleaching, leaving many southern tourism operators fuming.

"We will give the coral reefs time to recover naturally," Sunan Arunnopparat, directorgeneral of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, said yesterday.

More than 80 per cent of the coral in the areas were suffering from bleaching, he said, adding that the suspension of diving activities was introduced in consultation with academics.

The places to be made offlimits to visitors include Chuak Island of Chao Mai Beach National Park in Trang; Bulone Mai Pai and Bulone Rang Pheung Islands of Petra Islands National Park in Satun; Takiang Island, Hin Ngam Island, Rawi Island, Sai Khao Beach and Dong Island of Tarutao National Park in Satun; and Maphrao Island of Chumphon Islands National Park.

In Phang Nga, the sites are Hin Klang of Nopparat TharaPhi Phi Islands National Park; Suthep Bay, Mai Ngam Bay, Stork Island, Hin Kong and Pakkad Bay of Surin Islands National Park (coralreef area in front of the national park office); and Fai Wap Bay and Eve of Eden of Similan Islands National Park.

Sunan said the whitening is caused by various factors such as El Nino, chemicals, changes in coastal conditions and disruptive human activities.

"Coral reefs can recover from bleaching if the sea conditions turn fine. We should suspend diving activities to reduce pollution," he said.

The department would also adopt other measures such as limiting admissions to national parks and campaigning to make tourists more conscious of the environment.

Tourism operators in the South voiced opposition to the department's latest move.
Torpong Wongsathienchai, whose company offers diving tours to Similan Islands and Surin Islands in Phang Nga, said authorities were not aiming at the root problem.

"The move will hardly be useful. In fact, national marine parks have been closed to tourists for about six months out of the year all along," he said.

Authorities should implement strict measures to reduce oil spills from boats and promote environmentallyresponsible tourism, he said.

"When you close diving sites, you must think about the whole impact on the tourism industry. What about hotel operators? Will they get any guests?" he said.

If the hotel business was depressed, employees would face dire consequences too, he added.
Thawat Niranartwarodom, owner of the Bayfront Khao Lak Resort and Spa, said most travellers came to the Andaman Sea because they want to explore the marvellous snorkelling attractions.
"When we sell them tour packages, we show them our beautiful seas and islands. What will they say if they find they can't visit the places being advertised?" he asked.

Authorities should educate tour guides on how best to protect the environment instead of slapping a blanket ban on prime diving destinations, he added.

Thailand closes dive spots due to reef damage
Yahoo News 21 Jan 11;

BANGKOK (AFP) – Thailand has closed a host of popular dive sites to tourists indefinitely to allow coral reefs to recover from widespread bleaching caused by warmer sea temperatures, according to authorities.

In total 18 areas in seven marine parks are off-limits, according to an order by the Thai National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department.

"Diving in all the spots is to be halted indefinitely until the reef has fully recovered," said department official Songtham Suksawang on Friday.

The ban, effective in seven of 26 marine parks, mainly covers sites in the Andaman Sea on the west coast. It also applies to snorkelling.

Songtham said the authorities would limit the number of people visiting certain other reefs at the same time.

Coral on Thailand's east and west coasts is thought to have been damaged by last year's unusually high sea temperatures caused by El Nino, as well as excessive human activity near the reefs, a statement by the department said.

The ban was imposed in certain areas that "have widespread bleaching of more than 80 percent to allow the reef to rehabilitate", it added.

Sea temperatures were said to be around two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than normal in the affected regions.

A study by Australia's Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in October said reefs in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean were dying from the worst bleaching in over a decade after sea temperatures across the region rose in May 2010.

Bleaching is caused by the warm water sweeping over the reefs, shocking the corals and causing them to shed the algae that nourish them. If corals fail to regain their algae, they starve to death.

Scientists say corals are vital to marine life because they provide habitats for a vast variety of creatures and absorb large levels of poisonous carbon dioxide.

Reefs are also a big draw for tourists looking to explore the wealth of underwater life.

Thailand is a popular destination for divers, with many resort islands offering excursions to the reefs strung along the country's more than 3,000 kilometres (1,900 miles) of coastline.

The ban affects certain areas in the popular national parks of Similan and Phi Phi, as well as sites in Tarutao, Chao Mai, Chumphon, Phetra and most of Surin.

Penalties for non-compliance will run to fines and jail sentences and authorities have also vowed to step up patrols to stop illegal fishing.

Anchoring sites at spots not affected by the closures would also be increased to reduce damage done by boats to reefs.

Authorities said the coral bleaching will be closely monitored while the ban is in place.