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To revive reefs dying in warming seas, UAE turns to coral nursery

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — On a boat off the coast of an island near Abu Dhabi, marine scientist Hamad al-Jailani touches corals picked from a coral reef nursery and packed in a A box of corals in seawater and study them carefully to make sure they haven’t lost their color.

Corals were once bleached. Now they are big and healthy and ready to move back to their original reef, hopefully they will thrive again.

“We’ve tried to grow them from very small fragments to – and now some of them are – the size of my fist,” said al-Jailani, who is part of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency’s coral restoration programme.

Nurseries provide corals with ideal conditions for recovery: clear water, strong currents, and just the right amount of sunlight. Al-Jailani regularly checks the corals for growth, removes any potentially harmful algae and seagrass, and even cleans them by feeding on the corals until they are healthy enough to relocate.

The Abu Dhabi Environment Agency (EAD) has been restoring coral since 2021, when reefs off the coast of the United Arab Emirates faced their second bleaching event in just five years. EAD’s project is one of many public and private initiatives across the country aimed at protecting coral reefs and the marine life that depend on them in a country that has come under fire for its large-scale development and polluting industries that have harmed underwater ecosystems. Some progress has been made, but experts remain concerned about the future of coral reefs in a warming world.

Coral bleaching occurs when sea temperatures rise and solar glare washes out the algae that give corals their color, turning them white. Corals can survive bleaching events but cannot support marine life as efficiently, threatening the populations that depend on them.

According to the EAD, the UAE lost as much as 70 percent of its corals in 2017 when water temperatures reached 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit), especially near Abu Dhabi. But al-Jailani said 40-50% of corals survived a second bleaching event in 2021.

While the bleaching event “did wipe out most of our corals,” he said, “it also did demonstrate that the corals that we have are actually resilient…these corals can actually withstand these conditions.”

Bleaching events are occurring more frequently around the world as the burning of oil, coal and natural gas releases heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and as anthropogenic climate change warms waters. Other coral reef systems around the world have also suffered mass bleaching events, most notably Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The United Nations climate conference in Dubai later this year will discuss in detail how to limit global warming and its effects.

The UAE is one of the world’s largest oil producers and one of the world’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters. The country has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, meaning all carbon dioxide emissions would be slashed or offset in some way, but the target has been questioned by analysts.

But bleaching due to warmer weather isn’t the only threat facing coral reefs around the bay. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, high tanker traffic, fossil fuel-related activities, offshore installations and the extraction of marine resources are all putting enormous pressure on marine life, leading to their degradation.

Environmentalists have also long been critical of the UAE, especially Dubai, for its massive construction and huge coastal developments.

Construction on Palm Jebel Ali began more than a decade ago and has been on hold since 2008, prompting an outcry from environmentalists after reportedly destroying some 8 square kilometers (5 square miles) of coral reef.

“More than 90 million cubic meters (23.8 billion gallons) of sediment were dredged and discarded, more or less settling on one of the remaining coral reefs near Dubai,” said John Henrik Stahl, dean of Khorfakkan University’s School of Marine Sciences. in Sharjah, UAE.

The project is intended to resemble the Palm Jumeirah – a collection of small, palm-tree-shaped artificial islands off the coast of Dubai.

Despite this, environmental protection projects persist across the coastline and across the emirate.

Development company URB has announced that it wants to plant 1 billion artificial corals across 200 square kilometers (124 square miles) of Dubai by 2040 and 100 million mangroves along 80 kilometers (50 miles) of beaches.

Still in the research and development phase, the project hopes to create 3D technology to print materials that can hold algae, like coral.

Members of Dubai’s diving community are also encouraging coral conservation efforts.

Dive course director Amr Anwar is creating a certified coral restoration course that teaches divers how to collect and replant coral that has fallen off after being knocked off by a diver’s fin or boat anchor.

“I don’t want people to see broken corals and walk away,” Anwar said. “Through the training we give people, they will be able to take these broken corals that they find elsewhere, and then they grow and watch their progress.”

But unless the threat of overheating oceans from climate change is addressed, coral bleaching events will continue to occur, destroying coral reefs around the world, experts say.

Since pre-industrial times, nations have pledged to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), and scientists say the effects of a warming planet after that could be worse and some may even be irreversible. But analysts say most countries, including the UAE, are still far from achieving that goal.

“You have to first make sure that the cause of coral reef degradation is no longer a threat,” said Holfakhan University scientist Stahl, “otherwise restoration efforts may be in vain.”

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Associated Press correspondent Nick El Hajj in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.

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AP climate and environment reporting is supported by several private foundations.See more about the AP Climate Initiative here. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.

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