Faking it till the corals make it

Faking it till the corals make it
Coral in Singapore's reefs releasing egg-sperm bundles in 2010. The bundles will break up upon reaching the surface of the sea to allow fertilisation to occur. A new round of coral spawning is expected this weekend.

SINGAPORE - Singapore may be tiny, but it is home to one-third of the world's coral species.

However, it has lost 60 per cent of its original reefs, especially deeper ones, to development and silt kicked up by reclamation.

When these threats clash with the need to conserve natural habitats, artificial reefs can be a potential solution.

Industrial developer JTC Corporation (once the Jurong Town Corporation) is planning a small pilot test of an artificial reef at the north-west corner of Sisters' Island in Singapore's southern waters.

Last month, it called a tender for experts to work out the environmental impact of the proposed pilot reef and the details of a coral transplantation programme. The tender closes on April 22.

Among the factors to be studied: the quality of the water at the site; the amount of sediment the site gets; whether sediments contain heavy metals and chemicals toxic to marine life; the shape and slope of the sea floor; whether it will affect other corals growing naturally nearby; and whether it will have any impact on ships' safe navigation, among other things.

If the artificial reef project is feasible, the next step will be to transplant corals onto a prism-shaped structure made of granite rocks.

A JTC spokesman told The Sunday Times that the project was a follow- up from a theoretical study two years ago that identified Sisters' Island as a possible trial site for an artificial reef.

And depending on its success, further studies can be conducted to select additional sites if required in the future.

She said: "When planning for possible future coastal development plans, one of the factors that JTC takes into account is the coral reef habitat.

"As some developments might potentially cause impact to the corals, one possible pre-emptive mitigation measure is to create artificial reefs to house affected coral habitats. This will help to safeguard Singapore's coral reef biodiversity."

But the JTC effort is not the first of its kind here. Over the years, at least three artificial reef projects were set up for various purposes, but they have had mixed results.

Why would anyone build an artificial reef? Initially, they were used in Japan and the United States to attract fish to commercial and recreational fisheries, said National University of Singapore marine biology expert Chou Loke Ming.

In some countries, they are used for dive tourism. Shepherding divers to a sunken car or underwater statue garden helps take pressure off other reef sites.

And in Indonesia's Komodo National Park, piles of granite rocks were used as a cheap, readily-available base for corals to grow back after dynamite fishing damaged existing reefs.

The latter project was the inspiration for JTC's reef design, said Dr Karenne Tun, deputy director of the coastal and marine department at the National Parks Board's National Biodiversity Centre.

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