PhD

Post-Bleaching Surveys in Timor-Leste by Catherine Kim

Coral surveys back in Timor-Leste. Photo: F Ryan

A year and a half ago, I did my first coral health surveys in Timor-Leste for my PhD research.  Since then, it has been a big year for coral reefs with the largest global coral bleaching event in history in 2016.  Coral bleaching is caused by stressful environmental conditions, like high ocean water temperatures, that cause the tiny algae living in coral tissue to be expelled.  This results in white or ‘bleached’ looking corals.  This is important because the algae and coral form a symbiotic partnership where the coral provides a home for the algae and, in return, the algae provides food for the coral.  Corals can regain their algae and recover or, if the corals are bleached for too long, can die.  In some areas like the Great Barrier Reef and Hawai‘i, the coral mortality due to bleaching was well-documented, but many countries lack the ability to regularly monitor their reefs.

Timor-Leste is the newest member state of the Coral Triangle, the epicenter of marine biodiversity with over 600 species of corals.  The Coral Triangle encompasses 30% of coral reefs globally; however, little is known about how this area was affected by the mass bleaching event through 2016.  With funding from the Estate of Winifred Violet Scott, I just finished resurveying my sites in Timor-Leste and collecting the temperature loggers I deployed on the reef in November 2015.  The sites look similar to my first surveys a year-and-a-half ago.  This is promising news as it indicates that Timorese reefs may not be as susceptible to climatic changes such as ocean warming that threaten reefs worldwide.  However, there are a myriad of other threats such as pollution and overfishing that affect these reefs, but eliminating coral bleaching as a major threat for Timorese reefs gives hope that reefs here can thrive and continue to support the people who rely on them with proper management.