How Ships are Destroying Coral Reefs Around the World?

Coral reefs are enticing marine life bionomics that constitutes a rich ecological integrity and biodiversity, sheltering one-fourth of all marine species around the world. In the past few years, these marine habitats have been facing acute threat from ships, marine vessels, and effects of marine pollution.

According to some researches, Coral reefs are gradually nearing extinction, thanks to global warming, ocean acidification, seaweed ontogeny or bacterial disease, and human-induced activities such as over fishing and shipping operations.

Several incidents in the past, involving both cruise and cargo vessels have caused great threat to the coral reefs by hitting and grounding. In August 2010, within a span of eight days, two container vessels and a cargo ship caused serious damage to the coral reef near Mumbai and off the Kavaratti Island in Lakshadweep, which seconds the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for the largest collection of reefs in Indian waters. In another incident, in April 2010, a Chinese cargo ship, Shen Neng 1 was taken into custody by the Australian Federal Police, for running aground on the Douglas shoal at the Great Barrier Reef, 38 nautical miles east of Great Keppel Island. Prior to this, the world’s largest marine conservation park had suffered three major ship groundings, in the past decade.

coral reefs

Shipping threat

Incidences involving perching or grounding of ships on coral reefs endanger marine species, while also extensively damaging the plethora of flora and fauna. Moreover, there is always the fear of oil spill or toxin leakage as a result of such incidents, which can lead to extreme damage or permanent killing of coral reefs because of its insidious consequence of bioaccumulation within invertebrates.

Apart from groundings and oil spills, maritime activities such as salvage efforts, anchoring, dredging, propeller wash, and towing cable drags can result in destruction of coral reefs formation and loss of marine habitat. Sometimes piers, docks and luxurious residences are constructed right on top of coral reefs, causing much physical damage by scraping and burying the biota.

Grounding and anchoring problems have been documented since the 1970‘s. These have been further exaggerated by medium-sized and large-sized cruise ships, most of which are capable of entering shallow, sensitive areas and in the process, inflict severe scathe to the coral reefs, with their giant anchors and anchor chains. What is most frightening is that an anchor-damaged reef may never recover, and even if it does, it may take about 50 years or so.

Cruise ships are often found flushing their enormous amount of sewage and food waste and oily bilge water as a suspension of insoluble particles, into the ocean. In 2008, an EPA report, on cruise ship pollution discharge, stated that these decaying wastes and ocean dumping create acid in the waters and significantly decrease the oxygen level. This results in increase of toxic algae blooms, which is a major threat to coral reefs.

Shipping through shallow channels might cause soil erosion as well, which run off into the waterway and shadow the coral reef from the light to survive.

Reefs at peril

Currently the coral reefs in Southeast Asia, off Indonesia and Philippines, are found to be the most threatened ones, where many pristine reefs require utmost protection from the heavily populated adjacent areas. This region is a major shipping traffic hub with several mega-ports. The Straits of Lombok and Makassar, which constitutes part of the Coral Triangle, falls en route. Besides that, the Sawu Sea, Arafura Sea, Banda Sea, Seram Sea and Maluku Sea form together a complex shipping channel network. Hence, intense shipping activities like ballast/bilge discharge, garbage disposal, oil spills etc. add to the threat for the coral reefs in these areas.

The Caribbean ‘Blue Jewels’ coral reefs have undergone extreme pressure from marine-based tourism, untreated sewage wastes and overfishing. In southeast Florida, increased shipping activities and substantial growth of deep water ports and their effects on the coral reef systems are prevalent.

The Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest protected coral reef system, despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site, is affected by marine pollution, which makes waters turn more acidic and disable corals to produce calcareous skeletons.

Preventive measures

A number of issues have been taken into account for the preservation of Coral reefs. Expanding marine protected areas, regulating shipping stress, installing advanced sewage treatment system, implementing garbage management plan and abolishing destructive practices are of main concern. In 2011, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, prepared a Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill, which asserts that, in the Australian waters, the master of any ship must ensure non-pollution and non-damage to the marine environment, and that he should be liable for any reckless operation of the ship and/or any negligence with criminal and civil penalties for disputes.

An international environmental watchdog group, Friends of the Earth has reviewed major cruise liners and found out that many of the modern cruise ships, operating since 2006, lack advanced sewage treatment systems. The group estimated its impact and encouraged on installing the advanced system. However, their claim was disregarded by the Cruise Line International Association with a certificate of compliance with all environmental regulations set by the federal government and the maritime regulatory bodies around the world. According to Annex IV of MARPOL, large ships are prohibited from unloading sewage wastes within 7 km of the nearest land.

Another distinct initiative is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) – established by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state of Florida. The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force and the U.S. Coral Reef Initiatives are also putting in their efforts for the cause.

Even though unauthorized access or careless grounding in the coral reef regions are subject to high amount of penalization, the primary task is to segregate these spheres as protected zones to restrain shipping and fundamental damages. The stress is also on propeller wash excavation, harbor dredging, and off-shore anchorage.

Since 1981, FKNMS has been pioneering the installation and maintenance of Mooring buoys, which are alternatives to boat anchoring that can damage or even break apart the coral reefs. These buoys provide information and navigational assistance in areas with specific regulations. Also, discharge of pollutant or any toxic element from ships is highly prohibited in the affiliated region.

States complying with the framework of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), are adhered to the protocols of ratifying and implementing relevant shipping conventions and ensure protection of designated coastal areas, within the exclusive economic zones, for the preservation of fragile and rare ecosystems like coral reefs.

The US Code of Federal Regulations for Virgin Islands National Park adjudged that no watercraft shall be operated by attaching a rope or wire or any other appliance to any coral reef formation, nor shall anchors be placed or dragged, so that it can smash or otherwise cause damage to the reefs.

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