Maldives Coastline

The Maldives - over a decade of diving

3 minute read

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Marine Recovery Programme Manager

11 Jan 2023

For over a decade we've been working to protect the reef system of the Maldives. Dr Jean-Luc Solant, our Principal Specialist in Marine Protected Areas shares an update on our Reef Check project.

In the heart of the Indian Ocean lies the Maldives - a string of 26 coral atolls blessed with a wealth of colourful marine wildlife, that attracts over 500,000 divers, snorkelers and holidaymakers annually. But their attraction brings pressures on Maldives ecosystems that threatens the natural assets on which the country depends.

Female parrotfish on a shallow reef

Female bicolour parrotfish on a shallow reef

Credit: Jean Luc Solant

Last September I returned to the Maldives to complete my twelfth Reef Check survey expedition. I coordinate our partnership with Biosphere Expeditions, and since 2011 we’ve worked together to survey the incredible reef system of the Maldives. We want to bring about bottom-up change in the Maldives to mitigate the effects of damaging development and fishing pressure, and understand the ongoing impacts of climate change on these spectacular ecosystems.

Over those 12 survey seasons, we’ve seen a lot:

  • We’ve recorded new whale shark encounters
  • Supported the designation of a Marine Protected Area
  • Tracked the reefs’ resilience and recovery from a major coral-bleaching event in 2016
  • Published our findings with international collaborators

Most importantly, we’ve trained over 20 Maldivians - our Eco-Divers - in reef survey techniques, run monitoring workshops with government officers, and trained local dive centres and resorts in the Reef Check methodology. It’s a lasting legacy of locally-led research and conservation intervention.

Maldives Reef Check Coral

Credit: Jean Luc Solant

During the last survey, we surveyed 8 sites and collected hundreds of data points from 3 atolls: We recorded healthy reefs and big mega-fauna such as sharks and manta rays. We also recorded smaller wildlife such as butterflyfish, snapper, coral banded shrimp, hard and soft coral, and ‘nutrient-indicator algae’. These species indicate the health status of reefs, and our newly qualified Eco-Divers appreciate the significance of these indicators. Their dedication and attention to detail generates quality data makes the expeditions worthwhile.

Maldives Coastline

Credit: Saeed Rashid

We also record threats to the Maldives reef systems. For example, a major observation was that reefs near to recently ‘reclaimed’ islands have been affected by sedimentation spilling into the sea. Local people need more island space to live on (as there is so little land, and the population is growing), and the tourist industry wants to ‘make’ more ‘paradise’ islands.

Reclamation has been a constant threat to Maldives reefs since ‘island expansion’ programme grew with the last government. It requires thousands of tonnes of sediment to be dumped onto reef flats to initiate the process of ‘island creation’. In our surveys we recorded a decline in coral cover in shallow backreef and outer reef sites adjacent to where these major works had taken place. However, we expect the reefs to partially or fully recover if they don’t face any other damaging impact. Of course, that’s a big ‘if’.

Eco Divers Maldives Reef Check

Credit: Jean Luc Solant

I am now writing up our findings, which will be published within a few months and shared with the Maldives Government with recommendations.  Meanwhile, our Maldivian colleagues Shuga, Bas and Hampti will continue the surveys whilst we are away, keeping the Reef Check going until we return to support their work later this year. This important Marine Conservation Society legacy work is in safe, local hands.

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