Coral Reefs and Climate Change in the GCC Region

by Aisha Almaazmi, Manaswi Madichetty, Riman El Sayed

Abstract: The aim of this research paper is to analyze the correlation between increasing temperature and the damage caused to coral reefs, the marine ecosystem, and its impact on human health in the GCC countries.

Introduction

Climate change has affected multiple ecosystems across the globe; a critically important ecosystem that suffered the most due to climate change is the coral reefs ecosystem. The coral reef ecosystem is a marine ecosystem and it is a habitat to a variety of organisms and species, ranging from microbial algae to whale sharks. Moreover, the coral reef ecosystem overlaps with several other marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Nevertheless, the coral reef ecosystem is remarkably sensitive and fragile, where the smallest change could lead to destructive consequences. Therefore, the effects of damage to coral reefs will not be limited to coral reefs alone. In fact, damage to the coral reefs would produce a series of adverse consequences that would affect also marine life and humans. 

The most recognized form of coral damage is coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is when the corals lose symbiotic algae, known as zooxanthellae; this alga, along with the photosynthetic microorganisms, provide nourishment and pigment to the corals. Coral bleaching occurs due to various reasons, including but not limited to temperature variation, salinity and acidity variations, and introduction of toxins in water. Corals can survive weeks after the bleaching, but then they eventually die. If the condition that leads to bleaching, however, were reversed, the corals would be capable of recovering from bleaching.

 1. Impact of Temperature Variations on Coral Reefs

According to the National Ocean Service, on average, coral reefs grow at a temperature between 23°–29° Celsius. Although it may vary, generally speaking, the lowest temperature coral reefs can tolerate is 18° Celsius. Meanwhile, some coral reefs can tolerate up to 40° Celsius at most in terms of addressing high temperatures. Nevertheless, exposure to such a high temperature can be tolerated for brief terms of time only.  

Temperature variations impact coral reefs both directly and indirectly. The corals are affected directly when the change in temperature results in damaging their living tissue; in most cases these damages are irreversible. On the other hand, climate change can possess an indirect influence on corals. Different organisms that inhabit the same geographical area as the coral reef react in diverse manners and these reactions eventually stimulate a transformation in the surrounding environment of the corals. These transformations could have either a negative or positive impression on the coral reefs. In some instances, the impression could be neutral as well.

1.1 Warm Water Impact

The rising temperature patterns characterize a threat to corals in various aspects. When the planet heats up, so does the water. In water temperature higher than the threshold, the zooxanthellae and photosynthetic microorganisms will be released from the coral polyp. When the corals can no longer establish the mutualistic symbiotic relationship with the zooxanthellae, the coral will bleach, which will lead to death in several weeks from malnourishment. 

Rising water temperatures also negatively influence corals indirectly. In some instances, herbivore fish, like the parrotfish, will not be able to tolerate the high temperature of water; they either migrate or die. When no more herbivore fish are available in a geographic region, some competitor algae, called macroalgae, will nourish and rapidly reproduce, thus dominating over corals and putting them at the risk of bleaching. According to Coral Reefs Alliance, algae embody a threat to corals as algae are capable of “smothering them, blocking their access to sunlight and promoting the growth of harmful bacteria.” 

Climate change has also an indirect effect on corals. When the planet gets warmer, the oceans and water bodies will get heated as well, resulting in evaporation. When the heat evaporates the water in oceans, the natural habitat of coral reefs, solid material and particles will remain in the ocean, thus changing the salt concentration ad acidity levels of the water. Corals on average can grow and survive in water salinity that is between 32%-40% and the average salinity of the ocean is around 34.72%. Any disturbance in the salinity would result in irregular calcification, which will result in creating a barrier and blocking sunlight. Sunlight is essential for zooxanthellae in order to undergo photosynthesis and supply the corals with energy and nutrients. (Henkel, 2010).

1.2 Cold water Impact

Climate change threats on coral reefs are not limited to only higher water temperatures. A drop in the water’s temperature has a fairly negative influence on the coral reefs’ habitats.

Although the threshold temperature may vary depending on the geographical region, on average it’s 18°C. One of the most tremendous mortality rates of coral reefs due to a drop in water temperature took place in the coral reefs of Florida, United States (US). In January 2010, the Florida Reef Tract (FRT) experienced mass mortality of various coral reef colonies due to a spontaneous sharp drop in the water temperature that fell to 16°C. The drop in temperature continued for six days in a row and resulted in the death of 7.8% of all colonies in the FRT.

Similar to high water temperatures, low water temperature embodies a threat to the dinoflagellates and photosynthetic microorganisms that live within the coral reefs. When a disturbance in the homeostasis occurs, the efficiency in the endosymbiotic metabolism of these would decrease, and organisms won’t be capable of undergoing photosynthesis effectively, which leads to death. Once the dinoflagellates and other microorganisms are no longer providing photosynthetic products (energy and nutrients) to the corals, the corals will die due to malnourishment. Moreover, the cold water itself damages the living tissues of the corals. The living tissues will die and there is neither energy nor material and nutrients to repair with. 

In contrast to coral bleaching due to warm water temperatures, death due to cold water temperatures cannot be reversed when the water returns to its initial temperature. If corals were exposed to a temperature of 14 Celsius or less for barely nine hours, it would result in coral mortality. Meanwhile, in coral bleaching episodes, the corals can survive for weeks before they die due to malnourishment; and if the homeostasis was restrained again, the corals would be capable of recovering (Lirman, Schopmeyer, Manzello, Gramer, & Precht, 2011).

2. Impact of Corals on the Marine Ecosystem 

Coral plays an important role in the preservation of any marine ecosystem. It is crucial to analyze its impact on those that interact with it. Thus, the benefits of coral reefs are discussed in the following section, along with the impact damaged coral reefs have on the ecosystem and marine life. 

2.1 Benefits of Coral to Marine Ecosystem

Coral plays an essential role in marine ecosystems; its frequent presence indicates its importance for marine organisms. According to Coral Guardian (n.d.), there are three primary benefits of corals to marine life: coastal protection to increase ecosystem resilience, marine life habitat, and food sources. Firstly, many cities, communities, and countries are located within coastal regions, which means that they are within close proximity to the ocean or sea. Because of that, they are also prone to damages caused by storms, hurricanes, or tsunamis. Climate change has triggered the high frequency of these natural disasters, which puts ocean-side communities and countries in a vulnerable position. However, coral reefs act as natural barriers, protecting the coast from powerful waves and destruction from natural disasters. Coral reefs function as dissipators of wave energy, in which they “break” waves through friction, which protects the coasts from floods (van Zanten, van Beukering, & Wagtendonk, 2014). Not only do coral reefs protect coastal communities through breaking waves, but they also protect marine life from the consequences of storms and floods. When the coast is protected by coral reefs, the resilience of the marine ecosystem increases; therefore, marine life becomes less affected by damages. Healthy coral reefs are necessary for coastal protection; many coastal communities have been able to avoid damages. On the other hand, unhealthy or almost non-existent coral reefs pave the way for costly destruction to the coastal region. For example, due to the dying coral reefs in certain areas of the Maldives, a wall costing about 10 million US dollars was built in order to protect the coastline. Strong waves are caused by hurricanes and storms, which results in flooding; this causes severe damage to economies that rely primarily on the ocean. Economies that prosper due to activities such as fishing benefit the most from coastal protection, because fishermen are able to catch fish and sell them for money (NOAA, 2019). The coast protection offered by coral reefs is considered as a hidden cost; coastal communities are able to protect their economies and food sources without realizing the immense protection being offered to them. 

Second, healthy coral reefs provide a habitat for marine life. Over a million different species of plants and animals inhabit coral reefs; it serves as a means of protection from predators (Coral Guardian, 2014). Coral reefs can grow up to 45 meters from the ocean surface, which is why they are a popular living spot for marine organisms. Even though corals only make up 1% of the ocean floor, they house about 25% of marine species (KDE Santa Barbara, n.d). Sea urchins, fish, sharks, sea stars, shrimp, lobster, octopus, snails and many marine organisms find shelter in the brightly-colored reefs. Because of the diversity in species, coral reefs have been nicknamed “rainforests of the sea.” Just as there is a diversity in the species of fish, there is also a diversity in the types of coral. Different coral reefs house different kinds of fish, who choose their habitats according to their convenience. Coral reefs serve as a base for living, feeding, breeding, spawning and growing, which is why marine organisms choose reefs that are the most suitable to their needs. This demonstrates the commonality of having a differentiation in niche preference between different marine species, which shows the crucial relationship shared between coral reefs and marine species. Some species are shown to have a higher dependency on the coral reefs they inhabit when compared to other species. For example, smaller fish utilize the colors and massive structures of some reefs to hide from predators, as well as find tiny pieces of plankton to eat (Messmer et al, 2011). Coral comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors; however, they themselves are marine animals known as polyps. According to NOAA Fisheries (2019), polyps take root on the ocean floor, forming strong, sturdy caves made out of calcium carbonate. 

Lastly, coral reefs serve as a food source for both marine organisms and humans. Because many coral reefs are located close to shore, coastal regions and communities largely depend on protein-filled seafood from coral reefs, such as fish, shrimp, oysters, and lobsters. According to Coral Guardian (2014), well-maintained and healthy reefs yield about 5 to 15 tons of fish and marine invertebrates, which means around 1.42 million tons of seafood from coral reefs. Ten million people rely on seafood as a primary source of protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C. Because coral reefs provide a massive food source for humans, marine species are constantly reproducing to maintain a balance in the ecosystem. Coral reefs are never short of inhabiting species; fish and other species reproduce multiple times throughout the year while other species reproduce seasonally. Because of the diversity of ocean species, many species are constantly reproducing, which creates balance, especially when humans also use coral reef species as a food source (Woods, 2018).  In the case of coral reefs being a food source for other marine organisms, coral can be consumed when it is young or fully grown. When it is young, coral floats around in the plankton, where it can be eaten by some small marine animals. Even when coral is grown, they are eaten by many fish, snails, and worms, despite possessing a skeleton (Knowlton, 2019). 

2.2 Damaged Coral Reefs and Their Impact on Marine Ecosystems

As discussed in the previous section, coral reefs serve a great purpose in the marine ecosystem, as well as greatly benefiting marine organisms. Some of their main benefits to the marine ecosystem are offering coastal protection and resilience to marine ecosystems, providing a diverse habitat to marine species, and providing a food source to both humans and marine species. However, none of the benefits discussed above can be of any significance if coral reefs are damaged. In the past decade, the impact of climate change on ecosystems has become dangerously common. The increase of storms, hurricanes, and rising sea levels are common factors of climate change. Climate change also causes rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, which are two factors that trigger the decline of coral reefs. Coral is prone to stress from such factors that leads to coral bleaching and possible death.

Coral bleaching is a process caused by unusually warm temperatures in oceans (most commonly caused by climate change), which causes coral to turn white due to the absence of algae (NOAA, n.d). Algae and coral have an endosymbiotic relation with coral reefs, which means that their relationship is a mutual one between a host organism (coral reefs) and an internal organism (algae). When they are stressed, coral reefs forcefully release zooxanthellae, the algae that reside in coral and gives it its color and brightness. This process can eventually lead to coral reef death if ocean temperatures remain warm. The problem of bleaching is severe also because once corals die, they have a significantly lower chance of coming back. When there are no coral reefs, the remaining coral finds it more difficult to reproduce, which decreases the coral reef population. More importantly, when there are fewer coral reefs, marine organisms lose their habitat, food source, and protection (WWF, n.d). Frequent inhabitants of coral reefs such as fish, snails, sea stars, lobsters and more will struggle to find security against large predators. Some species have already reached the brink of extinction due to the death of coral reefs. This cycle will eventually cause an imbalance in marine ecosystems, which will not only impact marine life, but also human communities that benefit from coral reefs.

One of the most recent events of coral bleaching occurred during the years of 2014-2017, in which ocean water temperatures were extremely warm. Around 70% of coral reef ecosystems worldwide were affected, along with areas like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in which over 100 miles its coral was bleached. In 2005, the University of Newcastle upon Tyneled led a research team to investigate a sample of 50,000 coral reefs in some of Seychelles’ inner islands to compare the conditions of the reefs since 1994. The research team studied the impact of global warming on the coral since their first study and discovered that in 1998, ocean temperature increased, which caused the death of almost 90% of the inner island coral. Unfortunately, these coral reefs could not reseed or regrow, which caused a massive habitat problem for the marine species in that area. Due to the heavy effects of bleaching, there was a decrease of almost 50% of the area’s fish community, four fish species went extinct, and six fish species became critically endangered (Anonymous, 2006). 

With damaged coral reefs, there is no coastal protection or increase in resilience for marine ecosystems. Coasts have a higher chance of getting damaged due to the lack of protection offered by reefs. In addition, marine ecosystems are more susceptible to damage caused by hurricanes and storms, which weakens their survival mechanism. Moreover, damaged coral reefs leave no room for marine species to inhabit coral reefs, which puts their protection, food source, and breeding habits at a risk. Finally, food sources for both humans and marine species are compromised when coral reefs are at risk. Coral reefs and their inhabitants have become the prominent victims of climate change.

3. Impact of Damages to Marine Ecosystem on the GCC      

The damage to the marine ecosystem(s) is not limited to the sea creatures, it also affects humans since the sea and coral reefs are essential for humans’ survival. The sea provides food security, jobs for local communities, and supports the economy through tourism and economic activities. The GCC region’s economy is significantly supported by a marine water body, the Arabian Gulf (a.k.a. Persian Gulf). In the GCC region, the Gulf is mainly important for supporting fisheries and tourism. However, due to climate change, the coral reefs are decreasing in population and are at risk of extinction. Of course, any disturbance in the coral reefs’ ecosystem would lead to a disturbance in the marine ecosystem, which would be reflected on the human society and economy. Therefore, the GCC region is taking actions and establishing policies to prevent further damage to the coral reefs and marine ecosystem and support the recovery of their ecosystems. 

3.1 Impact of Damages to Marine Ecosystem on Human Society 

Climate change has resulted in an unprecedented damage to the coral reef ecosystem(s) that influenced further destruction in the various marine ecosystems. The affected marine ecosystem(s) would impact human daily livelihood; even if the consequences were not observed in the short term, they exist and would take place unless immediate actions were taken. Coral reef ecosystems hold immense importance for millions of people around the world. Sectors that are directly impacted include natural shoreline protection barriers, food providing fisheries, income, and jobs for local communities. Other benefits provided by the coral reef ecosystem include tourism, recreation, and foreign income. Concerns are being raised by researchers about the increasing levels of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, which is degrading coral reef ecosystems and generating global environmental risks for people that depend on them (Pendleton et al., 2016).

Some of the biggest plots of continental coastlines in the world can be found in the Middle East, specifically, in the GCC region. However, the Middle East, precisely the GCC region, is faced with some of the fastest-growing populations as a result of immigration and tourism (World Resources Institute, 2011). Coral reefs are a direct tourism attraction for many activities such as diving tours and fishing trips. There are also multiple restaurants, hotels, and many other businesses that surround the coral reef areas that generate large sums of income all around the world. Thus, the losses associated with the degradation of coral reefs are large. For instance, according to the Australia Institute, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia could lose one million annual visitors and lead to the loss of ten thousand jobs (Haines, 2017). According to another study in 2003, total annual earnings of coral reefs in the world is $29.8 ​​billion (Cesar, Burke & Pet-Soede, 2003). All of these studies highlight the importance of coral reefs to the tourism sector. The studies further elaborate on how the slightest damage to the tourism sector would impact the economy of a country with it. Most of the GCC countries’ economies rely on the tourism sector. For example, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the tourism sector has experienced a remarkable growth by 150% from 2006 and 2014 (Ben-Romdhane et al., 2020). The majority of the tourists stated scuba-diving and observation of coral reefs as the main aims of their trip. This indicates how crucial coral reef tourism is for UAE’s economy, and also for other GCC countries. Studies suggest that coral tourism brings around one hundred billion dirhams (100B Dhs) annually. As a result of the profit the coral reef tourism industry brings to the country, the UAE government planned to have 14% percent of the marine regions protected by 2019. That was done in order to preserve the coral reefs while creating more diving destinations, which would increase tourism in the UAE (Wasmi, 2017). 

One of the most important and direct forms of human dependence on reefs is fisheries. This dependence plays an important role in providing food, income, employment, and creates a drive towards poverty alleviation. Worldwide, over 275 million people live within 10 kilometers from the coast and 30 kilometers from a reef (Burke & Institute, 2011). For these people, fisheries are supposed to be a sustainable source of food, but with the degradation of coral reefs, their sustenance is put at risk. Unsustainable fishing has been the cause of this issue. According to the University of British Columbia (UBC), one-third of marine species could be extinct by 2090 if immediate action is not taken. “We did not consider the interactions between other human activities in addition to climate change,” said William Cheung, Associate Professor at UBC.  “Thus, considering the rapid development of the marine environment in the region, it may be worse. I think besides mitigating the damage, there is an urgent need to reduce carbon emission. In the longer term, this will be the ultimate solution to the problem” (Zacharias, 2018). The GCC countries’ economy and culture depends significantly on fishers. Therefore, the GCC governments are constantly working on increasing the growth of the fishery sector. According to one report, it is projected that the production of fish would increase by 7.2% between 2020 to 2025. This growth, however, may be limited by the climate change impact on coral reefs and marine biodiversity. Any reduction in coral reefs will lead to a decrease in fish population, and the marine biodiversity will be adversely affected. As a result, the fisheries would be damaged and result in a shortage in food security and a higher unemployment rate. In order to conserve the economy and the fishery sector, while continuously exporting fish, the GCC governments started investing in aquaculture. Remarkable major investments have been made despite the project(s) being in its early stages. For example, in Oman, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries had made a huge investment which is estimated to be one billion dirhams (1B Dhs) in order to develop 15,000 hectares of land for aquaculture.  Based on this investment, it is expected that Oman would produce two hundred thousand (200,000) metric tons of fish between 2030 and 2040. Another country that had planned and invested in supporting aquaculture, due to the damage inflicted on the fishery industry by climate change, is Saudi Arabia (KSA). KSA had produced sixty thousand (60,000) metric tons in 2017. Currently, KSA is working on surpassing the production of six hundred thousand (600,000) metric tons by 2030. It is noteworthy to point out that KSA’s investments in expanding the aquaculture and fishery industry is primarily driven by a need to meet the domestic demand and maintain food security for the public (Markets, 2020). All these efforts and investments further highlight how crucial the fishery industry is for GCC countries and the importance of preserving it and supporting the recovery of marine ecosystem. 

3.2 Efforts to combat Coral Extinction due to Climate Change

The GCC countries acknowledge the threats climate change has on the environment and coral reefs, and how it affects the public’s livelihood. Therefore, numerous efforts have been made to combat climate change and reduce the damage inflicted. One of the most remarkable efforts made was creating institutions and organizations to protect the environment and monitor climate change. These include the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment in the UAE, Environment Public Authority in Kuwait, and the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, GCC countries are currently studying the production of clean energy and switching to renewable energy instead of fossil fuels in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. Some of these efforts include UAE Energy Strategy setting an agenda to have 50% of the energy used as clean energy by 2050, where 44% of it would be generated from renewable sources. Moreover, KSA is planning to generate over 27 GW of clean power by 2023 and more than 58 GW by 2030 (Nagraj, 2020). 

Investing in eco-friendly projects and establishing studies to limit the impact of climate change on coral reefs is crucial. However, it would not be effective unless it is paired with educating the public about the climate change threats and enlighten them about the importance of our natural resources, especially the coral reefs. Therefore, in order to understand whether the impacts of coral reef degradation are recognized by the UAE community, we conducted a simple two-question survey. The results of the survey indicate that the majority of the population does recognize the coral reef degradation as a threat to their health and economy. To explore the opinions of the percentage of individuals that did not address this as an issue, we approached them to find out their reasoning. Most of the respondents who responded negatively did not recognize the economic benefits of a country’s coral reef or they did not realize that their main protein source in the form of fish is endangered. Considering the lack of awareness regarding this issue, the positive response percentage from among the 65 respondents is surprising (Appendix A).

Conclusion

Despite the abundance of research that discusses the importance of coral reefs in multiple ways, the awareness around the issue is not as elaborate. Our coral reefs, once damaged, are extremely difficult to regenerate completely, which would lead to a loss in marine life and habitats, thereby losing its value as a tourist destination. 

At an individual level, precautions one can follow to protect the reefs could be to simply follow the local rules that are set by the government regarding the reefs, adopt sustainable fishing, research the sourcing of the fish one consumes, avoid physical damage to coral reefs, and spread awareness in communities by starting mini-campaigns to explain the do’s and don’ts regarding coral reefs.

Other actions that need to be taken include implementing sustainable fishing and tourism, partnering with a local committee to spread the rules and regulations pertaining to coral reefs, and enforcing the penalties for violating rules regarding coral reefs. The most important suggestion is to take climate change efforts as a priority because of the multitude of adverse effects it has on coral reefs and other parts of the Earth as well. 

Appendix A 

These are the questions we included in the survey and the results we obtained. 

References

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