Monday, October 20, 2008

Mapping South Africa's coral reefs

Coral reefs are not just pretty, says Prideel Majiedt, the manager of a pioneering project that aims to map South Africa's reefs for the first time. "They provide processes, are nurseries for certain species and can be buffers from oceanographic processes."

Majiedt is leading the South African National Biodiversity Institute's Reef Atlas Programme, which hopes its digital maps will create the country's first ever reef atlas, showing the distribution of reef types in SA's waters.

As the country celebrated National Marine Week this week, Majiedt pointed out that SA features diverse underwater coral treasure.

"This is one of the few countries where you get cold water corals, soft corals and subtropical corals on one coastline. They're beautiful and special, grow so slowly and have such beautiful colours. Some species are found only in South Africa, and it's our global responsibility to look after them."

But many reefs are threatened. "The problem is that we don't know where they are, how threatened they are and what the actual threats are to each. Along the coastline, activities change.

Little is known about SA's coral reefs because most research has focused on terrestrial eco-systems, as "it's cheaper and more accessible".

But measures like the Reef Atlas are vital in planning for oceanographic changes brought on by climate change and to protect coral reefs from accidental damage by the fishing industry.

The programme is encouraging divers to submit their photographs of reefs, kelp beds and ship wrecks. The response, though, has been slow. "Some dive shops are very protective of their information because they have the GPS co-ordinates, which is the lifeblood of the industry - they have secret spots they take their customers to. We're very supportive of that."

The SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), Majiedt says, will not make those co-ordinates publicly available "to ensure the protection of vulnerable reef habitats and protection of the information shared by dive businesses".



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