1997 is the year of the reef

by Donna J. Nickerson, John Baldwin and Abdulla Nasee

Dedicating a year to coral reefs is a chance to reflect a bit on this very important, beautiful, and unique marine resource. To fisherfolk, coral reefs are homes to fish that are waiting to be caught. To snorkelers, divers and glass-bottom boat tourists, corals are one of the most unique art galleries in the world with amazing displays of colour and shape and brilliantly designed living creatures. Included in the gallery are the many species of coral reef fish that are inseparable from their coral reef homes. These fish are an essential part of the coral reef ecosystem.

In the Maldives, the protection of coral reefs is a priority for sustainable fishery

For much of the world's tropical coastal population, coral reefs are synonymous with reef fish and edible marine invertebrates. Reef-related fisheries yield between 9 and 12 percent of the world's total annual catch of 70 million metric tons. And this reflects only the recorded catch. Much of the coral reef fisheries is small-scale and much of the small-scale catch is not traded on the market. Instead, the non-market fish are "unsung heroes" of coastal community health and welfare - important providers of protein and food security for coastal fisherfolk communities.

In response to the realization that coral reefs around the world are under threat from a variety of impacts, a partnership of governments, agencies and non-governmental organizations commenced working together in 1994 as the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI). Coral reef survival depends upon the world community acquiring knowledge and the capacity to conserve and sustainably use coral reefs and their related ecosystems. It is the objective of ICRI to promote this message globally through the establishment of regional associations and actions including developing capacity within those regions to solve local issues in a local context.

The ICRI South Asian Workshop held in the Maldives in 1995 came up with several priority regional issues that emphasized the importance of fish as part of the coral reef ecosystem. One priority action was that unsustainable extraction of living resources should be identified, quantified and halted.

A sustainable coral reef fishery has a lot to do with the health of the corals. Each living individual coral animal or "polyp" generates nutrients that produce algae, forming the basis of a very complex coral reef ecosystem. Spiny lobsters hide inside the holes of the reef and feed on the abundant planktonic life passing by their "door". Groupers and snappers feed on bigger life forms of the reef but they also need its protection from their own predators.

Reefs not only provide the homes for many tropical fishes, but in the Maldives and Sri Lanka they are used for building human homes as well. The mining of corals for homes and building materials was identified as a priority regional issue for management in the ICRI South Asian Workshop. Coral mining is also one of the five issues that the Maldives is addressing under the Integrated Reef Resources Management Programme (IRRM).

IRRM is one initiative that is implementing recommendations made under global agreements such as Agenda 21, Chapter 17, which calls for development of an integrated approach to the management of coastal and marine resources with particular reference to the protection of coral reefs as an area of high biological diversity and global importance. Maldives IRRM is one of the many examples of a country's vision to better manage the important coral reef ecosystems of the world. The FAO Bay of Bengal Programme is assisting the Government of Maldives in implementing IRRM.

Reference: White, A.T. 1994. Collaborative and community-based management of coral reefs: lessons from experience. Kumarian Press, USA.

29 October 1997

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