Can Vietnam act fast enough to save its corals from a watery grave?

Local authorities have restricted swimming and diving in the Nha Trang Bay marine reserve until it fully inspected the area.
PHOTO: Unsplash

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Grim footage of dead corals at a Vietnamese marine reserve, as far as the eye can see, has reignited calls for better environmental action as even a two-year pandemic pause in tourism has done little to help the ecosystem recover.

Last month, pictures and videos of dead coral stretching hundreds of square metres at Hon Mun Island struck the public's nerve and prompted local authorities to restrict swimming and diving in the marine reserve until they fully inspected the area. The dead reef is situated in Nha Trang Bay, the first of 16 Marine Protected Areas in Vietnam.

The worrying sight, dubbed a "coral grave" by local media, highlights the extent of environmental destruction in Vietnam from man-made action, natural disasters and the effects of climate change.

"Nha Trang [coral reef] was damaged before the pandemic. The decay took place over a long period of time, not suddenly. We survey every year, and we see the decay every year," said Chien Le, founder of Sasa Marine Animals Rescue Centre, an NGO that revives damaged coral reefs and rescues stranded marine animals on Vietnam's central coast.

Causes of damage

The Standing Committee of Khanh Hoa Provincial Party Committee, which oversees Nha Trang province, in a June 20 report attributed the coral bleaching to the accumulated effect of factors such as climate change and the impact of storms in recent years.

Other factors included mismanagement by the Nha Trang Bay Management Board and unresolved harmful activities like illegal fishing and waste from tourism activities, the report said.

Chien said other activities that spelt doom for the reefs have been "coral mining" for commercial sale, and sea trekking tourism, in which guides would pluck coral from one area to plant it in their operation zone so tourists can enjoy a scenic underwater walk.

Chien, who has been planting new coral in Da Nang since 2018, says it would take around three years to plant a coral area of 10 square metres, "but a tourist can step on coral and destroy an area of 100 square metres in a day".

He added that coral exploitation and management oversight had been long-standing issues in Vietnam, a country that has long relied on its natural beauty and marine resources for tourism and fishery revenues.

Nha Trang Bay, Vietnam
PHOTO: Unsplash

The encroachment and devastation of coral reefs have been reported for years in other tourism homestays such as Vietnam's largest island Phu Quoc and the coastal province Phu Yen.

In 2017, the Institute of Oceanography reported that 42 per cent of the coral reef area in Son Tra peninsula, a nature reserve in Da Nang, had disappeared between 2006 and 2016, citing reasons such as seaside urban development and overexploitation of marine resources.

A 2020 study by Vietnamese and Russian scholars in the Marine and Freshwater Research journal indicated that only 1 per cent of Vietnam's coral reefs are considered to be in a healthy state while the rest face multiple threats to their survival.

Nha Trang Bay, with 250 species of hard corals, once had among the highest coral diversity in Vietnam. But the scholars' methodology of surveys and mapping showed that corals in the bay had declined by 90 per cent in fewer than four decades, between the 1980s and 2019.

An estimated US$27.8 million (S$38.5 million) to US$31.72 million is lost from coral reef tourism, aquaculture and fishery industries each year, according to a local 2018 study by Nha Trang University in the Ecosystem Services journal.

The study also raised concerns about the effects of climate change effects and highlighted the impact of the 2,000 or so fishing vessels around Nha Trang Bay with open-access fisheries that do not limit fishing volumes.

Activists lead the fight

Bui Thi Thu Hien, the marine and coastal director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, had alerted Nha Trang authorities about mass bleaching in the coral reefs, urging them to "review their management".

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"I know that the reality of the network of marine protected areas in Vietnam is only in name and [it's] without real investment," said Hien, who has been working in Nha Trang's marine protected area since 1998, providing technical and policy support for local authorities' marine conservation efforts.

Hien explained that support from local authorities typically determined the success of marine protection efforts in Vietnam but that it was also "very important" to instil awareness among the country's decision-makers.

"In the context of Vietnam, it has to be the political will."

Activists elsewhere in Vietnam have also lamented the destruction of marine biodiversity.

People in the tourism industry in Phu Quoc only see the "immediate" benefits, said Truong Nguyen Luan, a volunteer in the Phu Quoc marine protected area who has been collecting and analysing trash at sea since May 2021, as part of coral reef conservation efforts.

Tour operators in Phu Quoc typically cater to tourists' whims, such as bringing starfish ashore and leaving them to die under the sun, stepping on corals to take photos, or taking corals as souvenirs, he said.

Marine officials in the area usually warn visitors against these activities but hesitate to issue a fine, he said, drawing from his observation on field trips with them.

"In five years, there will be no more corals in Phu Quoc and people will turn to Con Dao for coral watching and destroy it there," he said, referring to a southeast archipelago famous for its charming beaches and a political prison where French colonial rulers detained Vietnamese soldiers and rebellions.

In Da Nang, Chien said his team would continue its coral-saving mission.

"Our goal is to do research to find a method to correct the wrong, not to sit there and lament [the destruction]," he said. "We are not people who can go into law and policy matters. We use science."

Last month, Sasa Center shared on Facebook pictures of budding corals from four species that Chien's team planted on the seabed of Son Tra peninsula two months ago, a new addition to thousands of square metres of corals the team has created in the area.

"This is so great. Nha Trang's sea ecosystem is very critical and I hope the team saves the coral reefs here," said a comment on the post that has garnered over 2,000 likes.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.