Coral reefs are to get renewed attention this year, which has been declared International Year of the Reef, to highlight their beauty, fragility and the part they play in maintaining life on the planet.

Malaysia’s seas are part of the Coral Triangle, stretching from the Philippines to Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, containing the oceans with the highest marine biodiversity.

Activities will be conducted throughout the year by the Ministry of National Resources and the Environment to raise awareness of threats to coral reefs and to encourage Malaysians to take action to protect corals.

The activities include an essay-writing competition, sea fiestas, international conferences, workshops, underwater photography contests, marine awareness programs for island schoolchildren, snorkeling for kids and beach cleanups.

Besides that, technical and scientific surveys and assessments will be implemented by local academics with international participation, where possible, to gauge the current status of our reefs and recommend measures for its well-being or rehabilitation.

The ministry says there is a need to manage coral reefs in a sustainable and integrated manner while preserving the marine ecosystem.

Under its slogan “Our Reefs, Our Heritage, Our Responsibility”, its ultimate objective is to protect and conserve Malaysia’s reef heritage.

The ministry’s activities are part of the worldwide campaign to educate the public about the value and importance of the world’s coral reefs, highlight the variety of threats and move the public to take action to protect the reefs.

This is especially so because the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has placed coral reefs on its watch-list of wildlife under threat of going extinct, with climate change being named as one of the biggest threats to marine life.

Coral reefs are built up by the skeletal remains of massive colonies of tiny living organisms called polyps which secrete limestone to form an outer shell to protect their soft bodies.

Coral reefs are the largest living structures on the planet and are one of the oldest complex ecosystems on Earth, living for thousands of years.

They are intimately connected to other marine communities thriving in mangrove forests, sea grass beds, and the open seas, as water currents transport larvae, plants, animals, nutrients and organic materials. They protect coastlines from wave and storm damage and erosion.

Endless efforts have been made to save corals from destruction. Coral reefs may only cover less than one per cent of the Earth’s surface, yet they are home to 25 per cent of all marine fish species, as well as a source of livelihood and food for 500 million people worldwide.

Their medicinal components are used in the treatment of cancer, HIV, cardiovascular diseases, ulcers as well as human bone grafts. All in all, it is estimated that coral reefs provide US$375 billion (RM1.27 billion) a year in goods and services worldwide.

The survival, growth, reproduction and productivity of corals around the world have been adversely affected by sedimentation, bleaching and diseases. While climate change and global warming are constant pressures to corals’ survival, human activities such as destructive fishing, coral harvesting and pollution are also major threats.

Coral reefs are being degraded at an alarming rate by the accumulation of stresses arising from human activities as well as natural changes in the oceans and atmosphere. In many situations, chronic stresses are overwhelming the resilience, or the capacity for self-repair, of reef communities.

— Courtesy of The New Straits Times Online