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GVI Caqalai April 2018 Achievement Report-

Coral Bleaching

Summary

GVI have been looking at the extent and severity of bleaching affecting the Scleractinian (or
‘hard’) corals on the beautiful house reef of Caqalai island. This is in line with our overarch-
ing objective of ‘Protecting and Monitoring the Coral Reef Resources of Moturiki’, and in ac-
cordance with the UN SDGs 13 and 14.

How are we meeting this objective?

The communities that we work with in Moturiki are subsistence based, all households rely
heavily on the coral reefs and associated tropical costal ecosystems for their protein and in-
come through catching, eating and selling certain species of valuable fish and invertebrates.
In order for these resources to be in abundance the reef itself needs to be in good condi-
tion; there is a well-documented link between high levels of coral cover and diversity and
high amounts of fish biomass, invertebrate abundance and overall biodiversity. The corals
act as the foundation of the coral reef ecosystem and they actually build the solid calcium
carbonate structures of the reef itself, therefore providing all the different habitats and eco-
logical niches that the thousands of other organisms associated with coral reefs rely on so
heavily. Coral bleaching very negatively affects coral health, growth and diversity and can
lead to the loss of habitat for many of the valuable fish and invertebrates that the communi-
ties rely on, this will in turn negatively affect the development of these communities and so
therefore in monitoring coral bleaching and advising accordingly it is in line with our objec-
tives of helping the villages protect their marine resources into the future.

The clear link


between ar-
eas of high
coral cover
and abun-
dance of
commercially
important
(protein and
income) reef
fish and in-
vertebrates.

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Report

Tropical coastal waters are famous for being calm, turquoise, warm and most importantly
very clear. This clarity and blue colour comes from the fact that there are very few nutrients
available to the ecosystem, this is evident by the fact there is literally nothing in the water,
no dissolved nutrients means there is very little phytoplankton, and in turn very little zoo-
plankton and dissolved organic matter. Ordinarily low-nutrient environments do not sup-
port much life as there I no primary production, plants can’t photosynthesise without the
availability of essential nutrients. Yet coral reefs support such a huge diversity and abun-
dance of life because of a very special relationship between a coral and a tiny single-cell
plant (or microalgae) which has shifted the entire base of the ecosystem. The microalgae
are called zooxanthellae and coral polyps have large concentrations of them captured and
living inside the coral tissue in a symbiotic relationship. The algae benefit because the coral
tissue protects them from predation and they thrive on the waste products of the coral’s
respiration, and the coral benefits because the algae photosynthesize and produce sugar
which the coral takes from the algae for up to 95% of its energy demand. This energy allows
the coral colonies to grow into the complex shapes and structures found on a coral reef and
in turn increase habitat diversity and overall biodiversity of all the associated organisms.

What is Coral Bleaching?

Coral polyps themselves look like tiny transparent anemones, it’s the symbiotic algae inside
the tissue that gives the corals their colour. When environmental conditions aren’t suitable,
such as through too much sunlight, extreme tides, and most importantly increased water
temperature, the relationship between a coral and its algae breaks down and the corals ex-
pel the algae from their tissues. All that is left is the transparent coral polyps through which
you can see the brilliant white calcium carbonate structure of the colony itself, this is called
coral bleaching and can affect certain parts of a coral colony, certain species of coral, or the
entire reef itself.

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Since the 1980’s there has been a significant increase in bleaching events worldwide, due to
the fact that the sea surface temperatures have risen every decade since 1900. If the water
remains too warm for more than 3-4 weeks then the corals will not recover their symbiotic
algae and they will die, even if they do recover, the recovery is slow and the corals are un-
likely to reproduce or grow in the season following the bleaching event. This has extremely
negative effects on the coral reef as an ecosystem, if there is mass mortality of coral, algae
will smother the dead coral skeletons and they will become brittle and break up, destroying
the structural diversity of the reef and removing the habitat of thousands of other organ-
isms. In 1998, a particularly warm year on record, the world lost 16% of its coral reefs, many
of which have not recovered due to an increasing rise in average temperatures and local
stressors on coral reefs, many scientists predict with the current warming trends there will a
complete loss of coral reefs within 60 years, which will cause devastating effects on commu-
nities relying on the coral reef resources.

Fiji has been badly affected by bleaching too, in 2000 up to 80% of coral reefs around Fiji
were affected to some extent by bleaching, with many reefs losing the majority of the vul-
nerable species such as Acropora spp. GVI Caqalai decided to set up a coral bleaching pro-
ject in line with our overarching objectives in partnership with a well-respected marine ecol-
ogist, Helen Sykes. The project started at the beginning of 2017; we conduct 2 parallel 20m
surveys every week at two different sites on the Caqalai fringing reef system that have very
high levels of coral cover, and coral diversity that’s typical of what is seen in the local area.
Corals are tallied according to their level of bleaching, most corals fit into the ‘alive’ cate-
gory however there are also ‘partially bleached’ (also relatively common and not always a
cause for concern), ‘fully bleached’ and ‘recently dead’ categories. Corals are also separated
out into their different growth forms, or shapes. It is important to know which types of coral
are bleaching more relative to other types, as there it is known that some corals are gener-
ally much more susceptible to bleaching (Acropora spp.) however the exact types affected
can vary geographically. In addition to collecting the data on coral bleaching we also in-
stalled a temperature logger which permanently sits at 7m at one of the sites where we col-
lect data and continuously records the water temperature. It is removed every 6 months or
so and the data is collected, it is then reinstalled.

Results and Conclusion

In April 2018 the data the data since April 2017 was analyzed, and the graphs are shown on
the following page. Both Sites show a pronounced increase in partial bleaching and full
bleaching from December with the greatest amount of bleaching in early January. The
bleaching levels then begin to fall at both sites from late march through April. This is exactly
what is expected to be seen as the water begins to warm from October onwards with the
warmest months being January and February, thus showing that the bleaching is most likely
linked to water temperature. Moreover in early January there was a period of intense sun
with little rain, which is not expected at this time of year in Fiji as it is traditionally wet sea-
son. This unusual weather combined with the increased water temperature most likely trig-
gered the bleaching. Thankfully only a small proportion of the corals experienced full
bleaching and subsequent death as the numbers of recently dead corals remain relatively
low.

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Numbers of Corals at Different Bleaching Levels Since
Aguust 2017 (Site 6)
350
Number of corals affected

300

250

200

150

100

50

0
Aug 17 Sept 17 Oct 17 Nov (1) Nov (2) Dec 17 Jan (1) Jan (2) Feb 18 March Apr (1) Apr (2)
17 17 18 18 18 18 18

Partially Bleached Fully Bleached Recently Dead

Numbers of Corals at Different Bleaching Levels Since


April 2017 (Site 24)
250
Numbers of Bleached Corals

200

150 Partially
Bleached

100
Fully
Bleached
50

Recently
0 Dead

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