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Climate Change’s Impact on Timor’s Coral Reefs

In 2007, despite mounting civil unrest, Timor-Leste established its first National Park connecting a number of endangered bird areas and encompassing a large section of the Coral Triangle, an underwater zone believed to hold the greatest diversity of marine life on Earth. Emelyn Rude is a Young Explorer studying the balance between environmental conservation and economic development in a nation of newly restored independence.

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One of the incredible resources available to the people of Com, and the majority of those living on Timor’s coasts for that matter, are the country’s spectacular coral reefs. Timor-Leste is situated right at the very south of the famed Coral Triangle, an underwater area with the highest marine biodiversity of anywhere on the planet.

Home to some 75 percent of all known species of coral and 3,000+ species of reef fish, this marine area encompasses the oceans around the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, as well as Timor-Leste.

The Coral Triangle, Photo: Wikipedia
The Coral Triangle, Photo: Wikipedia

The importance of these reefs are not only environmental – they are incredibly lucrative to local communities as well. The fisheries and aquaculture in the region have an estimated value of $11.7 billion and reef and beach based tourism provides a revenue of approximately $12 billion annually.

But conservation, tourism, and fishing do not always work hand in hand, so that’s where efforts by groups such as the Coral Triangle Initiative come in.

Referenced from their website, ”The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security (CTI-CFF) is a multilateral partnership of six countries working together to sustain extraordinary marine and coastal resources by addressing crucial issues such as food security, climate change and marine biodiversity.” It’s American-based glue, and major funding source is USAID, with technical support from the NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association).

I managed to catch up with Rusty Brainard over the phone a few weeks ago while he was waiting to board a flight to Scotland. Mr. Brainard is the Division Chief of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division at the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Center and has done extensive work in Timor as well as in the broader Coral Triangle as a whole. Below are some highlights of a much longer interview that can be read here.

Protected Species Sign at Com Beach Photo: Emelyn Rude
Protected Species Sign at Com Beach Photo: Emelyn Rude

Climate Change and its impact on coral reefs are a growing global issue. Can you go into more detail on the Coral Triangle Initiative’s efforts surrounding climate change in Timor? 

Rusty Brainard: We have established 10 baseline sites around the country, three on the south shore, one on the east, and the rest on the north shore. At each site we measure acidity, carbon chemistry, overall salinity, pH, saturation rate, and temperature. All of these are used to establish a baseline of carbon readings.

Calcium carbonate levels are significant to measure the calcification rate of corals and algae. In order for coral to grow, it needs a certain substrate of calcium carbonate, which helps the polyps attached to rocky surfaces and forms the basis of their skeletal growth.

When you change the sea water chemistry, both corals and algea suffer badly. By mid-century, depending on which CO2 emission prediction is correct, many of these reef building species will no longer be able to produce the calcium carbonate that is essential to the reef structure. Only 1,000 species of coral can do this, but millions of species depend on this habitat to survive. We will lose the reef’s diversity.

Have you already seen climate change’s impact on Timor’s reefs?

RB: We’ve established a baseline of calcification, but we don’t have data for what the rates were previously. We’ve taken coral bores to track it in decades past but we’re having difficulty taking these bores back to the United States. Timor-Leste is not signed on to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) so the NOAA can’t bring the bores out of the country.

When Timor first gained independence they signed on to a whole host of treaties without thinking of the long-term consequences, which caused lots of problems for them. The government is not against CITES, but is more wary of signing onto new treaties now. Hopefully they will ratify it soon.

A group of local boys pull a fishing boat to shore Photo: Emelyn Rude
A group of local boys pull a fishing boat to shore Photo: Emelyn Rude

Bores? How does that work? Is it like tree rings?

RB: Yes, actually. Corals with an abundance of food tend to grow really fast and also tend to be more resilient to increased carbon emissions in the water. You can see this growth on the coral’s internal structures.

Bores aside, all this doesn’t sound very positive. Is there any hope for the Coral Triangle?

RB: A lot of our observations about calcification come from the lab environment, but coral in the wild might be much more resilient than we think. Chemical changes in an experiment happen over the course of a few days while these changes happen over decades in the oceans. But chemical changes do also seem to have a devastating impact on coral reproduction, but we know very little at this point about coral’s life history.

How are CTI’s efforts in Timor different from their efforts elsewhere in the Coral Traingle?

RB: Working in Timor is much easier because the country is much smaller, especially compared to Indonesia. They are also developing an economic system from scratch. Getting people to change is really hard, but the government here didn’t even exist a decade ago. We are able to start from an eco-system based approach right off the bat, which is much less of a challenge than trying to get people to change.

But it’s also difficult. They have very little structures in place, particularly information structures. Politically, population wise, resource wise, it’s also a very different situation. It’s more similar to pacific islands like American Samoa in that sense.

Two Rocks on the Beach Photo: Emelyn Rude
Two Rocks on the Beach Photo: Emelyn Rude

A big thanks to Rusty Brainard for risking missing his flight to take the time out to talk to me. Read the full interview here

NEXT: Revolutionary Sex-Appeal & Reminders From Decades of War

Comments

  1. JIm Steele
    October 30, 2013, 7:25 pm

    I applaud protecting our coral reefs. However Brainard’s claim that “By mid-century, depending on which CO2 emission prediction is correct, many of these reef building species will no longer be able to produce the calcium carbonate that is essential to the reef structure” is pure fear mongering. Most studies of local changes in pH show that natural cycles cause pH swings that are 10 times anything that is predicted by rising CO2. Let’s mark our calendar’s and see just how scientific his projections are.

    Is he quoted correctly when he also provides evidence for just the opposite effects when he says” Great Barrier Reef has seen dramatic increases in calcification rates over the past few decades however.”