A special issue of the academic journal Marine Pollution Bulletin was released addressing current challenges, management strategies, and future research questions for coral reefs in the Arabian Gulf. The marine environments in and around the Gulf have been attracting increasing levels of interest in recent years from the international scientific community, largely due to the ability for its reef fauna to withstand extreme environmental conditions and temperatures.
The special issue, titled "Coral reefs of the Gulf: Past, present and the future of a unique ecosystem,” resulted from discussions at the 2012 Coral Reefs in the Gulf conference hosted by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute that was attended by more than 160 reef scientists from 19 countries. The event was organized by John Burt, NYUAD assistant professor of Biology, who co-edited the special Gulf issue alongside David Feary, chancellor's postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Bernhard Riegl, associate director of the National Coral Reef Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
In the opening article, “The growth of coral reef science in the Gulf: A historical perspective,” Burt noted that a comprehensive assessment of previous literature showed that out of the 270 academic publications concerning coral reefs in the Gulf over the past 60 years, more than half were published in the last decade.
“The increase in research activity in recent years is a strong indicator of the growing interest from the international scientific community in the region’s marine environment. However, more knowledge has not necessarily translated to better conservation,” he said. “While it is a positive sign that the region’s coral reefs are better understood, they are still in dramatic decline. The development of more local research capacity and educational programs are needed to support the application of long-term marine environment management.”
The 12 published articles in the special issue cover topics ranging from the impact of both environmental and man-made developments on reef communities, to investigations on the high thermal tolerance of Gulf coral reefs, and assessments of conservation techniques, such as the development of Marine Protected Areas and translocation programs to replace degraded reef communities.
In a paper written by Bernhard Riegl and Steve Coles, a marine invertebrate zoologist at the Hawaii Biological Survey, the authors investigate the proposed approach of introducing Gulf coral species, which can survive summer temperatures up to 10 degrees Celsius higher than corals elsewhere, to regions outside the Gulf, such as the Indian Ocean.
“Such a direct approach to helping preserve existing temperature tolerant corals in the Gulf while simultaneously introducing potentially resistant and resilient populations outside of the Gulf has its appeal,” the paper states, but concludes that “such a management approach would be advisable only as a last resort to restore corals and reefs under thermal stress levels extreme for their localities.” Rather, the authors suggest, a regional Gulf program to preserve coral communities in a facility with controlled conditions would be more feasible and could be used to revive stressed and damaged coral communities.
The issue concludes with an identification of high priority areas for future research on coral reefs in the Gulf by lead author David Feary, with experts in the field recognizing the importance of continued discovery of biological and ecological processes, and a better understanding of the potential role of climate change and man-made developments on coral reefs.