Several popular dive sites at seven marine parks have been closed to diving in Thailand. The ban covers coral reefs suffering from serious coral bleaching which started in 2010. The reefs which will be off-limits to diving are located in the Andaman Sea on Thailand’s west coast.
The purpose is to let the reefs rest under circumstances in which as few environmental pressures as possible affect the coral. “We will give the reefs time to recover naturally,” Sunan Arunnopparat, director general of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, said in an interview. The comments were published by the Thai newspaper The Nation on 20 January, 2011.
The director general added that more than 80% of the coral in the areas was affected by bleaching. Overall the situation is serious: more than 50% of all the reefs in southern Thailand show signs of whitening and loss of colour. Divers visiting Thailand tell that it is not question of bleaching only. They say that at least in some places a high percentage of the bleached coral has actually died.
While announcing the ban, Sunan Arunnopparat also told that the restrictions were introduced in consultation with academics. As regards the duration of the emergency measures, Sunan Arunnopparat said: “The recovery of the coral will be monitored before the ban is lifted.”
In addition to the reef closure, the Department will apply other habitat protection measures. Limiting admissions to national parks and educating the tourists in environmentally sound practices were mentioned as examples.
The new restrictions are likely to hurt Thailand’s tourism industry and especially the dive business in the short term. In the long term the dive business may benefit. In case the new conservation measures lower enough the combined environmental stress factors on the reefs they could prove helpful – globally coral reefs are mainly threatened by the warming of seawater. The root cause is climate change. Not only tourism is at stake, reef health is crucial to maintenance of local fisheries and prevention of coastal erosion.
The coral bleaching – whitening due to the loss of the symbiotic zooxanthella microalgae from coral tissues – was first observed across the Andaman Sea in May 2010 after a surge in seawater temperatures. Serious bleaching was reported also from other parts of the Indian Ocean in 2010. Furthermore, similar news came from some reef areas in the western Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Bleached coral often dies. As coral grows slowly, the recovery of a reef will usually take years. As coral reefs often suffer from several environmental stress factors, there is no guarantee that a damaged reef will recover.