Sediment dredging is killing corals and must stop during bleaching events

Caption: Coral reef sediment dredging in the Maldives, seen in this satellite image, leaves long plumes of fine sediments that smother and eventually kill corals. The plume, larger than most Maldivian islands, rotates around the atoll depending on the direction of tidal flow, winds, waves, and currents. The island at bottom right, Male, has a major part of the Maldives population, and its sewage outfalls are released into the area where dredging is taking place, causing health risks to the dredgers and those dumping sediment to make artificial islands like Hulhumale, at the right side of the image, and Gulhi Falhu, an atoll now being filled up with dredged sediment, at bottom left.

Corals are extremely sensitive to high sedimentation (Goreau, T.F. and Yonge, C.M., 1968. Coral community on muddy sand. Nature217(5127), pp.421-423) and soon die if sediment is dumped on them, as they have limited energy to clean themselves. If the corals are bleached they have no excess energy to resist stress at all, and will die much faster! Bottom trawling for fisheries is permitted in much of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Protected Area, and the plumes of mud they raise have severely impacted much of the corals.

Dredging was the worst global killer of coral reefs until half a century ago, when massive pollution of reef waters began around mass tourism developments, and since the 1980s when the mass coral bleaching temperature tipping point was first passed.

Now bleaching happens every year, and is getting much worse as global warming accelerates, and as tropical countries become increasingly desperate to capitalize off tourism development before their beaches are flooded by global sea level rise.

Record high temperature bleaching mortality took place in the Caribbean, Eastern Pacific, and Central Pacific in 2023.

The high temperatures have now moved to the Southern Hemisphere, and the Great Barrier Reef, Samoa, and much of Western Pacific reefs are bleaching again. The Maldives is forecast to bleach in the coming months. The Maldives is the major focus of massive dredging to create artificial islands by Belgian and Dutch dredging companies. An injunction against dredging has been issued by the Maldives High Court, but the Government is appealing to have it struck down. The recent military agreement between the Maldives and China makes it more likely that the large Chinese dredging companies that have destroyed so many atoll reefs in the South China Sea, will move in as well. Worldwide more than 10 billion dollars are spent pumping sand on beaches that washes away before the end of the season. Florida, Cancun in Mexico and Galveston in Texas are especially famous examples. In 2022, the size of the worldwide Dredging market was USD 10410.19 Million and rapidly expanding.

Coral reefs are already well above temperatures they can tolerate due to global warming by fossil fuel pollution

Coral Bleaching Alert:
Government must immediately stop all marine dredging activities in Maldives

Press Statement
20 March 2024

On 17 March 2024, the Maldives Marine Research Institute issued an alert stating that:

“We have noticed that localized bleaching has started in some places in the Maldives. The current NOAA forecast is looking dire over the next few weeks.”

Scientists globally have been raising concerns about the record breaking global temperatures in 2023, the occurrence of El Niño that is adding to it and the continuing record-breaking sea-surface temperatures (SST) in 2024. We know that corals are living organisms that are highly susceptible to even small temperature changes and die under such high heat conditions. On 11 March 2024, the Maldives Meteorological Service tweeted saying that the ‘feels like’ temperature that day exceeded 42°C.

We are aware that the current forecast and serious concerns raised by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch (CRW) programme reported by Reuters on 5 March 2024 states that:

“We are literally sitting on the cusp of the worst bleaching event in the history of the planet”.

The potential impacts compelled Australian NGO Climate Council to describe the increasing heat levels on the Great Barrier Reef as an ‘underwater bushfire’.

We know that in the Maldives, every bleaching event has had disastrous consequences on our living reef systems, upon which our economies, livelihoods and lives depend. Maldives has suffered greatly from repeated bleaching events over the past years, including the mass bleaching events of 1998 and 2016. The 1998 coral bleaching event had devastating impacts on our reefs:

“Most of the islands are surrounded by coral reefs that were in good to excellent condition prior to 1998, when the massive El Niño climate change switch resulted in coral bleaching and approximately 90% mortality of all corals on most Maldivian reefs, reducing many sites to 2% live coral cover.

Our reefs take years and decades to recover from every such devastation and the Maldives’ institutional ability to study these impacts is as severely limited as our political and governance ability to make evidence-based decisions and act on the science.

According to the latest available State of the Environment Report of Maldives 2016:

“The biodiversity sector of the Maldives contributes to 71% of the nation’s employment, 49% of public revenue, 62% of foreign exchange, 98% of exports and 89% of GDP.”

Despite the clear evidence and recognition of the critical importance of our marine biodiversity sector for our physical and economic survival, our ability to protect and sustain our marine resources is being severely compromised by both national and international actors. This is primarily due to widespread, unchecked and unsustainable so-called ‘development’ activities which involve dredging, reclamation and coastal modification and the devastating impacts these have on marine life and habitat.

Dredging and reclamation across the country are resulting in the irreversible loss of finite coral reef ecosystems, biodiversity and the ecosystem services on which we depend for our income source, climate resilience and protection. These activities undermine our ability to survive and thrive in the Maldives.

Given the clarity of the science and the situation, we call on President Mohamed Muizzu to show leadership and courage to immediately stop the devastating damage being inflicted on our coral reefs and biodiversity on a daily basis by dredging and reclamation activities. The survival of our reef system  foundations depend on this. We must not continue to bury our living coral reefs with dredging sediment and sand. We must act now to stop this aggressive and unforgivable stress on our reefs which are now being subjected to global boiling.

Animation: NOAA’s Bleaching Forecast ⬇️ (Mar-Aug 2024)

NOAA's CoralReefWatch - 4 month forecast animation (global East)

NOAA’s ‘Coral Reef Watch’ – 4 month forecast animation (global East, 60% probability) March through August

NOAA's CoralReefWatch for Maldives [18-Mar-2024]

NOAA’s ‘Coral Reef Watch’ for Maldives [18-Mar-2024]