The beauty beneath the waves
Jan Korrubel was finishing his master’s degree in pelagic fish at the University of Cape Town when he got the call to study a coral reef discovered by a dredging company working in Jebel Ali.
“I remember the area as being very beautiful,” said Mr Korrubel, who used a boat fitted with video cameras to survey the sea floor, helping the Austrian scientist Dr Bernhard Riegl.
“The coral was very healthy from what I saw.”
Of the 37.7 square kilometres surveyed by the scientists in 1995, 14.9 sq km was found to be coral with 3.8 sq km of algae and sea grass.
There were 35 species of coral on the reef and 100 fish species, Dr Riegl said. So, in 1998, Dubai Municipality issued a decree to protect the area, establishing the Jebel Ali Marine Reserve.
But in summer that year, sea temperatures warmed significantly as a result of the El Nino Southern Oscillation. With that, about 90 per cent of Arabian Gulf coral was lost, including large die-offs in Jebel Ali.
Dr John Burt, associate professor at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and head of its marine biology laboratory, has studied the recovery of coral reefs throughout the Gulf for the past decade.
He recently co-authored a scientific paper about Gulf reefs, the need for their protection and their importance as an asset for climate science. It was published last year.
The paper’s authors studied the effect of coastal development in the area, which started in 2004 with the construction of Palm Jebel Ali. The man-made island, built within the territory of the marine reserve, replaced 8 sq km of live coral reef, the paper said, and further losses followed in 2007 when the Dubai Waterfront was built.
Only a few patches of coral remained in the area, Dr Riegl said.
Nakheel, the company behind the Palm Jebel Ali, did not respond to questions.
In comments to media last year, a company representative said Dubai’s already built-up coastline limited options for where to place the development. “Most of the existing coastline of what was known as Old Dubai was already gone, so we had very limited choice on where we should put the project.”
The company also pointed to the economic benefits of the land reclamation developments and to its project to relocate coral from the Dubai Drydocks breakwater to The World islands. About 2,200 square metres of reef were moved at a cost of more than Dh36 million and the coral grew by 20 per cent in five years.
Dr Burt believes that more could be done to enhance coastal management practices and ensure the sustainability of the remaining reef habitat. He suggested that a marine protection zone be created in the area around the remaining reefs in the Saih Al Shaib area near the border with Abu Dhabi.
“Coral reefs represent an important ecological asset for Dubai,” Dr Burt said. “They have unfortunately been affected by bleaching events in the 1990s and later coastal development. It is important to put procedures in place that ensure the remaining habitats remain free from potential future impacts from new coastal and industrial development projects in the emirate.”