As climate change continues to affect ocean temperatures globally, scientists say the Arabian Gulf is likely to be among the areas most affected.
A study to assess the potential impacts of climate change on marine biodiversity and fisheries catches in the Arabian Gulf suggested the region could lose up to 35 percent of its species richness by 2090, relative to 2010.
“Fish stocks in Qatar, like everywhere else in the world, are not in a very healthy state,” Pedro Range, a research assistant professor at Qatar University, said. “There have been many years of very strong exploitation that’s reflected in a decline in fisheries catches in the past decade. On top of that we have the global threat of climate change.” (See a related article, “Shifting Desert Winds Could Turn Arabian Fisheries Barren.”)
Although the forecasted effects of rising temperatures in the waters off Qatar are substantial—a reduction of up to 30 percent in fisheries catches by the end of the century—Range says there are actions that can be taken now to mitigate these impacts.
Protecting Coral Habitats
In Qatar most of the fish catches come from coral habitats or coral-dominated habitats. Therefore, Qatar University researchers focus their work on protecting existing coral reefs, providing alternative marine habitats, and restoring the functions of degraded coral reefs.
Coral reefs harbor the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem globally. However, reefs around the world have suffered from mass coral bleaching events in recent years as a result of rising water temperatures associated with climate change, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (See a related article, “Why the Gulf’s Ailing Coral Reefs May Not Come Back.”)
“Fish stocks in Qatar, like everywhere else in the world, are not in a very healthy state. There have been many years of very strong exploitation that’s reflected in a decline in fisheries catches in the past decade.”Pedro Range
A research assistant professor at Qatar University
Bleaching is a stress response that causes coral animals to expel the microscopic algae that provide the energy needed to build three-dimensional reef structures.
One of the projects underway at Qatar University’s Marine Biology Centre is coral farming, in which researchers collect fragments of corals from existing natural reefs, break them into small pieces, and grow them at inland farms. When these fragments grow to a good size, the researchers plant them back onto reefs where they can grow naturally.
Radhouan Ben-Hamadou, an associate professor of marine sciences at Qatar University, said that the aim of this project is to understand what makes some coral species, or specific coral colonies within the same species, more resistant to stressful conditions than others.
Researchers can then choose the corals that are doing well during stressful times, and grow them in the farm so that they can substitute the dead corals with ones that are more resilient and more resistant to stressful climatic conditions.
‘An Open-Sky Lab’
Ben-Hamadou, who is managing the project, says that this kind of research is relevant to other parts of the world as well.
“The international scientific community is very eager to read research from this region to see how species are adapting to stressful conditions and to understand the restoration and protection measures that we are following here, because they believe that if it works here then it can work anywhere,” he said.
The Arabian Gulf is the hottest sea in the world and one of the most stressful ones for coral reefs, according to Ben-Hamadou. Thus it serves as “an open-sky lab where people can see what will happen in their own seas within a few decades when it becomes warmer.” (See a related article, “New Research Path Offers Hope For Gulf’s Coral Reefs.”)
Another project carried out by the Marine Biology Centre and industry partners involves planting artificial reefs as an alternative habitat for fish, a technique that has been used in many places before.
This includes placing concrete structures in the sea to act as a refuge, spawning and feeding ground for fish and other marine organisms. But these structures decay over time and need to be replaced or they lose their function as a habitat.
The Qatar University’s project is trying to do this in a different way.
“Our objective is not to directly create fish habitat with these structures, but to deploy these artificial reefs as a substrate for natural corals to settle and grow,” Range said.
He explains that this way they don’t need to worry about the decay of the concrete structure because they will already have natural corals growing on it.
Many Contributing Causes
Although climate change is the main culprit behind the degradation of Qatar’s coral reefs, activities like overfishing and building infrastructure for coastal developments on top of existing reefs have a huge impact as well. (See a related article, “Researchers Find Pollution from Cosmetics in Gulf Waters.”)
Range and Ben-Hamadou are in favour of establishing marine protected areas to protect these habitats that are so scarce already.
“As scientists and researchers, we can’t reverse the trend of environmental changes but we can try to slow their pace and change our behavior so that we don’t add to existing pressures.”Radhouan Ben-Hamadou
An associate professor of marine sciences at Qatar University
But the main hurdle to do that, according to Range, is that scientists are still not sure how big these reefs are.
“We know where they are, but we don’t know how big they are because most of the healthy reefs exist in deeper waters where satellite imagery can’t capture them,” he said.
Moreover, mapping these reefs requires very specific equipment and a very skilled work force, and both, according to Range, are very scarce in Qatar.
Small Steps Toward Solutions
Despite the importance of all these steps, Range says they don’t solve the main problem, which is the rapid degradation of natural coral reefs.
“When I came to Qatar, I realized how much damage was done in just 20 years. I realized that this habitat needed specific attention,” Range said. “I have two girls and when they are my age, there will be no corals to see if we don’t do anything about it.”
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But Ben-Hamadou is not discouraged by the gloomy outlook. He quotes a proverb that says, “Lighting one candle is better than cursing the darkness”.
“As scientists and researchers, we can’t reverse the trend of environmental changes but we can try to slow their pace and change our behavior so that we don’t add to existing pressures,” he said. “Even if we contribute a little bit to counteract whatever natural degradation is happening, it’s better than complaining.”