Research finds UAE’s coral reefs are on the mend

Inaccurate information on location and status prompts calls for more research.

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ABU DHABI // Coral reefs in the Arabian Gulf and Sea of Oman are recovering from recent natural and man-made disasters at a healthy rate.

But speakers at the New York University Abu Dhabi Coral Reef Conference said on Monday that more research into the subject was still needed.

The Ministry of Environment and Water and NYUAD recently spent three weeks mapping their locations, to determine the state of coral reefs in the region.

Dr John Burt, a marine biologist and professor at NYUAD, said maps drawn up in the past were out of date and, in some cases, inaccurate. He said most were based on United Nations Environment Programme projects completed in the 1980s.

“These were based off them asking folks ‘where are the reefs?’ Now we’ve got much better information,” said Dr Burt.

Despite the prevalence of geographical mapping in conservation, information about reef locations and their status in the UAE is limited, he said.

The group conducted research on locations, and found that in some cases man-made breakwaters were sites of new coral reef formations.

“Aside from not knowing where they are, we don’t know much about their status,” said Dr Burt. “We’ve had a variety of events over the past 20 years that have lead to their decline.”

Coral reef growth has been disturbed by events such as the Palm projects in Dubai, the red tide algae blooms in 2009, and Cyclone Gonu in 2007. “The purpose of our study was to map reefs in the UAE, especially in the Northern Emirates, using satellite imagery, scuba and drop-down videos,” said Dr Burt.

“In terms of mapping results, the imagery was accurate, but as many people know the penetration of satellites is quite low.”

Satellite imaging is ineffective here because of turbid waters in the Gulf and Sea of Oman.

Dr Michel Claereboudt of Sultan Qaboos University in Oman has developed algorithms that make use of cheaper camera equipment and programming to make better assessments.

He said that 12 years ago video imaging underwater cost about US$5,000 (Dh18,350).

“Now with a GoPro for about $400, it gives you four times the resolution,” Dr Claereboudt said.

His program automates images taken to make general assessments of growth rate, species and location of the reefs, which can be monitored over years.

“The ultimate goal of this programme is to do it automatically using cameras and other features, through some machine algorithms to figure out the characteristics,” he said.

Oliver Taylor, the head of ecology at Five Oceans Environmental Services, said the growth of coral reefs can increase through public involvement. “Anchor damage is a huge problem, it being quite a popular tourist destination, and we need to help understand how to preserve it,” he said.