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Tropical Rainforests of the Oceans Facing Dangers: Coral Bleaching

The Promotion Committee for Utilization of the International Exposition Yeosu Korea held the first parliamentary debate for the present condition of and countermeasures to “ocean desertification” in the National Assembly on November 25. The reason the committee has put “ocean deserti­cation” on the agenda is that coral bleaching is spreading throughout Korean seashores far more quickly than it was originally expected to. It is very important to prevent coral bleaching since it harms people by depleting a significant number of marine creatures. Therefore, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) provides an overview of coral bleaching, its adverse rami­fications, and possible solutions to it.

What is coral bleaching?

Definition Coral bleaching could be de­ned in two ways. First, it can refer to the phenomenon in which corals die and become white due to the increased water temperature. Corals originally depend on a symbiotic relationship with algae-like unicellular flagellate protozoa, called zooxanthellae, which provide nutrients to corals via photosynthesis using the carbon dioxide produced by the corals. However, as the water temperature rises, this symbiotic relationship breaks, and corals start to die. The remains of dead corals whiten rocks under the ocean bed, as corals contain calcium carbonate. Secondly, it is also known as the phenomenon in which ocean ‑floors become white after the Corallinaceae of the Rhodophyta division, plants which look similar to corals, die and discharge their lime components. The leading cause of this coral bleaching is global warming, because increased water temperature leads to the death of coral reefs and the Corallinaceae. This way, coral bleaching causes the calcification of rocks and dismantles them. It is also considered to be a form of “ocean deserti­fication” since it causes underwater environments to become barren, consequently bringing about the dissipation of marine life.

Aftermath of Coral Bleaching/ theday.co.uk

Adverse Ramifications of Coral Bleaching

Coral bleaching results in two major adverse impacts on marine life. Firstly, the number of sea plants decreases due to coral bleaching, and it signi­ficantly lowers the ocean’s ability to produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. Sea plants are known as the “heart of the ocean” due to the fact that they contribute to producing 70% of the oxygen in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Moreover, unlike other types of algae, marine creatures cannot prey upon the crustose coralline algae which mainly consume lime components from the sediments of coral bleaching. As a result, the whole marine ecosystem is destroyed. This may also result in an economic crisis because the income rate of the ­fishing industry reduces by 40% per hectare. To sum up, coral bleaching threatens the whole world by damaging the marine ecosystem.

Seriousness of Coral Bleaching around the World

Global Coral Bleaching Status/ ra.or.kr


In the case of Korea, coral bleaching was ­first discovered near the eastern coast of Korea in the 1970s. It expanded to the eastern coast of Yeongdeok and Pohang during the 1990s. The total area of coral bleaching in the eastern coast of Korea exceeds 62%, and the most heavily affected regions were the equivalent of 4,300 football fields. Coral bleaching constantly expands by threequarters of the size of Yeouido, which is 2.9 km2 every year, and it has now reached the western coast. As a result, the main sources of Korea’s maritime yield, including giant Pacifi­c octopuses, brown seaweed, and abalones, decreased by a signifi­cant amount. These damages sum up to ₩77 billion every year according to the Korea Fisheries Resources Agency (FIRA). The government, however, lacked the foresight to prevent these damages, mainly due to its limited budgets. For instance, Ulsan neglected the management of an “ocean forest,” a group of sea plants that is artifi­cially formed to tackle coral bleaching, in spite of ₩600 million invested each year.


Coral bleaching in the coast of Japan is also serious because of global warming and marine pollution, and 30 local governments among 47 were damaged by this phenomenon. For instance, Minamisanriku, a town in the Motoyoshi District of Miyagi Prefecture, is the largest producing area of abalone throughout Japan. Sales dropped to a tenth and its yield fell by 20% in 2015 compared to the year before. Moreover, Okinawa, which has the largest coral reef in Japan, experienced coral bleaching, as well.


Map of the Great Barrier Reef showing results of aerial surveys for 911 reefs in 2016/ coralcoe.org.au

The Great Barrier Reef located off the coast of Queensland, Australia is the largest coral reef system in the world, and it stretches over 2,300 kilometers, which is twice as long as the Korean Peninsula. It is also regarded as the “Amazon rainforest of the ocean” since thousands of marine organisms live there. An Australian research team announced that coral bleaching has destroyed 93% of the Great Barrier Reef. One of the reasons for this destruction is that the Australian government keeps attempting to develop the coal industry. To make Australia the leading coal exporter in the world, Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister of Australia, constructed many mines and harbors near the coast. This caused limestone to fall into the sea and exacerbate coral bleaching. Experts said that the Great Barrier Reef would disappear by 2050 if the current trend continues. There has been an ongoing controversy related to the Great Barrier Reef this year as the reef was not included on the endangered list by the World Heritage Committee despite its condition. One of the assumptions is that the Australian government put pressure on the World Heritage Committee to maintain their tourism industry, which creates 70,000 jobs and earns ­five billion dollars every year.

Resolutions for Coral Bleaching

Marine Afforestation Project

The Korean government designated Yeosu as the first place to initiate the marine afforestation project and continues this project every year, receiving support from the FIRA and the provincial government of South Jeolla province since 2012. It provides “ocean forests,” where a signfi­cant amount of sea plants are set out onto concrete structures or panels ­fixed to natural bedrocks. These groups of seaweeds create oxygen through photosynthesis and become spawning habitats for marine creatures. This way, ocean forests restore the marine ecosystem, thereby preventing coral bleaching. For example, Yangyang’s catch has risen with the increase in sailfi­n sand­fish after establishing an ocean forest nearby. In addition, Jeju Island started a new initiative using “Effective Microorganisms” (EM) to make an ocean forest this April. EM includes several types of microorganisms such as yeast fungus, lactic acid bacteria, or photosynthetic microorganisms, so they are effective in purifying water, restoring soil, and clearing toxicity. They are also able to overcome poor surroundings such as deep water or intertidal zones since they do not need artifi­cial structures. The Korean government established a goal to make 09 Global Coral Bleaching Status ­ra.or.kr Map of the Great Barrier Reef showing results of aerial surveys for 911 reefs in 2016 coralcoe.org.au Korea Australia Japan 54,000 hectares of ocean forests by 2030, and in 2013, they appointed May 10 as the world’s ­first “Ocean Arbor Day” to draw people’s interest to the project.

The most important thing is to provide ongoing management to this project. According to the Board of Audit and Inspection, however, many projects were promoted without a proper examination process, follow-up plans, or post management plans. About 24% of artificial reefs had no effect on coral bleaching for these reasons. Experts recommend that the government strengthens present regulations that impose a duty to check facilities every three years.


Technical Developments for Environmental Changes

Seaweeds are the most sensitive marine creatures to changes in water temperature. Therefore, researching seaweeds and developing applied technology related to them are other alternatives to adapt to environmental changes like coral bleaching. Korea created a research complex in Jeju Island to develop ­sh shelters mainly used for harboring coral. In addition, it is helpful to study mangroves and “Super Kelp” since they are able to endure high temperatures. Mangrove forests are usually located in the tropics and they provide spawning grounds, shelters, and food for fish. They also help maintain a healthy ecosystem by offering coral reefs clean water as they ­lter pollutants. In the case of Super Kelp, it can grow at almost 27 degrees Celsius and has a height twice as tall as ordinary kelps. It was jointly developed by the Ocean and Fisheries Science Institute in South Jeolla Province and Chinese ocean development corporations in October 2015. Additionally, the Korean research team succeeded in growing Super Kelp in the South Sea that same year.

The Ocean Cleanup

Marine pests such as sea urchins and starfish cause both direct and indirect damage to ecosystems by hindering the growth and procreation of marine creatures. They accelerate the desertifi­cation of the sea since sea urchin mainly eat away various seaweeds, and starfi­sh prey on shell­fish. To remove these pests, the FIRA and a group of private divers cleaned up the coast near Ulleung Island this August. POSCO, a company specializing in iron manufacture, conducted a volunteer work, “Clean Ocean,” which also helped remove these organisms. Not only does this activity increase the fishery income by improving fishing ground environments, but it also increases the income of farmers because the organisms are often used as manure for agriculture. In the case of Samcheok, both fishermen and farmers earned higher profits by removing star­fish from the ocean and using them as their fertilizers.

People around the world are suffering as a result of coral bleaching. Beautiful, colossal coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef which is one of the world’s natural heritages, are no longer with us, and precious environmental resources that provide oxygen to the atmosphere and habitats to various species are becoming lost. The Promotion Committee for Utilization of the International Exposition Yeosu Korea also plans to carry out civil movements and organize forums to monitor and study coral bleaching. Furthermore, the SKT hopes that Kingos become more alert to global warming and environmental issues that aggravate ocean desertifi­cation.

석소은  sou2146@naver.com

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