Experts Gather to Discuss Coral Reefs of the Gulf

NYUAD Assistant Professor of Biology John Burt works with the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD) on a two-year project to develop a monitoring program to determine the current state of Abu Dhabi's coral reefs.

According to John Burt, NYUAD's Assistant Professor of Practice of Biology, more than 70 percent of the 3,800 square kilometers of coral reef in the Gulf has been lost, and only three percent of reefs are considered to be relatively undamaged. With statistics like that, it's no wonder that Burt created the Coral Reefs of the Gulf Conference, a three-day event that took place in Abu Dhabi last month. Proposed to the NYUAD Institute last year "as a means to open opportunities for collaboration and dialogue among scientists working on reefs in the Gulf, and to promote the regionally focused research that is going on here at NYUAD in my lab and with my collaborators at various government institutions in the region," explained Burt, the conference was the first of its kind in the region.

In order to facilitate a more open dialogue among participants, conference attendance was limited to 120 attendees, who, over the course of the conference, took part in a series of themed symposium sessions. Topics ranged from the natural history of Gulf reefs, environmental extremes and climate change, future threats and opportunities, science-based management and conservation, and locally focused studies of unique reefs in the Gulf, with each session beginning with a keynote address from a renowned expert in the field. "The breadth of interests and depth of knowledge was incredibly uplifting," Burt said.

In addition to focusing on the scientific means of coral reef conservation, the conference highlighted the importance of preserving what Thabit Al Abdul Salam, director of the biodiversity management sector at Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi, called "the rainforests of the seas" in his opening remarks. "The problem is not strictly limited to conservation and the threat of the loss of diversity, but also it has key political, cultural, social, and economic implications as well," explained Al Abdul Salam. "Globally, more than 1 billion people are estimated to derive benefits directly from coral reefs, the majority of which are in developing countries." He also remarked upon the critical threats of climate change and coastal developments, on which Burt recently co-authored a policy report. "Our coral reefs have particular importance given their existence here in such extreme environment," Al Abdul Salam said. "They may offer us an insight into what the coral reefs of the world will look like in the future, given increasing temperatures."

"I have no doubt that the shared information of so many international and regional experts will enhance our understanding of coral reef ecosystems," Al Abdul Salam said, as well as "act as a catalyst for future research in this direction."

Although there have been several conferences that have explored marine environmental matters, the Coral Reefs of the Gulf Conference specifically addressed the region's coral reef issues, was science oriented — as opposed to management, conservation, and policy oriented — and provided a more technical forum for researchers to "share knowledge on our current understanding of these unique systems, to open dialogue on the gaps in our regional research, and to develop collaborative relationships to work together to fill those gaps," Burt said.

As David McGlennon, NYUAD vice provost, Research Administration & University Partnerships, said during the conference's opening remarks, "I strongly support recommendations for long-term, systematic environmental and ecological studies engaging local universities with the international research community, building local capacity, and developing decision-making and policy development that is based on data." And with a presentation lineup that included both regional and international leading scientists — "a truly global presence, with scientists that have regionally focused research coming from every continent, save Antarctica of course," added Burt — the conference provided the opportunity to get numerous active experts and policy-makers in the same room, and identify critical research areas and needs.

I have no doubt that the shared information of so many international and regional experts will enhance our understanding of coral reef ecosystems as well as act as a catalyst for future research in this direction.

Thabit Al Abdul Salam, Director of the Biodiversity Management Sector at Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi