Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Maldives Marine Research Centre

This morning, I had a few e-mails in my inbox. Dr. Shiham Adam of the Marine Research Centre offered to meet with me at 11am. Shaahina picked me up at 9:30 and brought me to the dive school office. I met her husband, Gert, and a few of her employees. Shaahina and her husband run a dive school and tourist diving business. Very kindly, she offered me the use of her office and computers. I did some work there until I left for the Centre.

Dr. Shiham is the director for the centre. He spoke with me about their work, which focuses mainly on fisheries. The centre falls under the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. It opened in 1999 and has about 40 staff. The role of the centre is to conduct research, create technical reports and give policy advice. He said that often his advice is ignored by politicians who focus on the short term and delivering on promises made to or hopes of the people. I guess that's a global phenomenon. But one way in which Maldivian politicians and US politicians differ, especially at the presidential level, is that the Maldivians stand for the environment. Both the current president and the previous president have been outspoken on issues of climate and small island states. President Gayoom was instrumental in starting AOSIS, the Association of Small Island States. He has said that the Maldives does not want to drown, have it's lands eroded, economy destroyed or for its citizens to become environmental refugees, but rather, they want to stand up and fight. Just last year, President Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting to draw attention to the issue of sea level rise. He has also been front and centre in the call for a reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 ppm.   

When it comes to the fisheries, overfishing is a problem here. There is little regulation of the harvesting. Tuna is a main catch (85%) and also reef fish, which they use to bait the tuna. All fishing is done with a line and hook. Concerns related to climate change have to do with warmer temperatures. Here's my (very basic) understanding: The fish eggs develop more quickly in warmer temperatures. Female fish lay eggs, males fertilize them, and then they drift in the currents and settle on the reefs. If fish are hatching sooner, they may not mix across reefs.

Warming ocean temperatures also pose a threat to coral reefs. In 1998, there was a massive bleaching event in the Maldives and another just this past spring. Some corals have recovered, others not so much. When water temperatures rise above a certain point, the algae with which the coral structures have a symbiotic relationship leave. The corals need the algae for food. So do the fish.Once coral dies, it becomes more vulnerable to the crashing waves and breaks down into a pile of rubble. That process can happen in just a few years. As it happens more frequently, the resilience of the coral decreases. If this happens over a large enough area, the dead and crumbled coral would leave the land behind the reef more vulnerable to waves and erosion.

Erosion is already a problem. He estimated that 90% of the islands have problems with erosion and homes are being lost right now. He told me about one woman on an island who says she's seen the land erode about 100 feet in the last 10 years. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami made matters worse. Trees that were once in from the shore line are now lying in the waves. While Tsunami's are not climate change related (or so we think), they can change the environment rather quickly and leave it more vulnerable to further changes.

Climate change is not only a professional concern for Dr. Shiham, but also a personal concern. He says he finds it's very scary and sad. His fears extend beyond sea level rise, though. He thinks of Male' being a concrete jungle and the added weight of the development. This island rises from the depths, and some say when the sea level was lower, the waves would crash and eat away at the coral, creating caves. He fears that the added weight could make it topple.

This is just another reason why I don't want to focus only on climate change, but rather environmental change. It's not just the changing climate that poses a threat. It's all changes, even the ones considered to be beneficial. 

I asked if he has children. He does, a daughter. His wife and daughter think about leaving. His daughter is off to study in Australia later this month and his sister lives in the United States. He thinks about leaving but doesn't think he will. He stays optimistic, thinking that the reefs might be able to adapt or that there might be a technology that is developed. Some studies do suggest that the reefs could adapt, but I think they assume that sea level doesn't suddenly rise, but rather rises at a pace the corals can keep up with.

It was a very interesting conversation. I'm so grateful Dr. Shiham made time to speak with me today.

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