How to Save the Persian Gulf’s Dying Coral Reefs

Rampant development has killed off 70 percent of the region’s life-giving reefs.
The Palm Jumeirah development in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Matthias Seifer/Reuters)
Oct 23, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

If you want to see the rapid and disastrous effects of ignoring environmental science, it would be hard to find a more discouraging example than the Persian Gulf. It’s a small, shallow, salty body of water, bottled up at its southern end by the 29-mile-wide Straits of Hormuz, and researchers have been warning for more than 30 years about the inevitable consequences of careless development.

Those warnings have gone almost entirely unheeded as the eight oil-rich nations bordering the Gulf have rushed to create global megacities in place of trading and fishing villages. Salt marshes, salt flats, sea grass beds, mangrove swamps, and rich coral reefs have rapidly vanished, along with the fisheries they supported. An estimated 70 percent of the coral reefs that once flourished across an area of almost 1,500 square miles are dead, and another 15 percent are in critical condition. The few that remain relatively healthy tend to be around diving clubs and in areas “worth visiting for recreational purposes,” according to an article in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Even those are commonly “covered with fish traps and lobster pots.”

The major cause of this devastation doesn’t come from some force beyond local control, despite frequent claims to that effect. “It is not uncommon in Gulf States to hear that degradation of the shallow coastal habitats is caused variously by global warming, or by the massive and deliberate Iraqi oil spill, or by other factors which somehow are not our fault,” writes Charles Sheppard, a University of Warwick marine ecologist who has worked in the region since the mid-1980s.

Sheppard calls that a “false deflection of blame” for problems largely caused by such mundane—and preventable—problems as “reclaiming” land by filling coastal waters, misguided dredging practices, sedimentation from development, discharges of sewage and other pollutants, and overfishing.

In one notorious case, the United Arab Emirates built Palm Jumeirah, the ostensibly glamorous artificial archipelago in the shape of a palm tree, over what had been a protected marine reserve. It buried three square miles of living coral under tons of rock and sand. (Palm Jumeirah is now said to be sinking back into the sea.)

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The people behind such projects often “have little idea or understanding of what is underwater” or how marine ecosystems work, according to Sheppard. He describes another case in an unnamed country in which a restoration program established artificial reefs to create habitat, as the natural reefs were vanishing. Together with a ban on fishing, this resulted in a rapid recovery of corals and large groupers—a prize game fish—followed immediately by pressure from officials to allow spearfishing. Informed that this would destroy the value of the restoration project, the officials asked if there could at least be spearfishing on holidays, “with the reasoning that one day per week surely could not matter.” The only way to get them to understand why this wouldn’t work was to put it in terrestrial terms: Would they also allow one-day-a-week hunting in that nation’s struggling Arabian oryx recovery program?

To save the Gulf—“a very enclosed and not particularly large marine basin”—will require far more cooperation among the eight Gulf nations, according to Sheppard. He said satellite tracking has shown plumes of sediment “from one state going right into another, where they will smother the sea grass and algae beds and coral reefs.”

Whether such episodes result in protests from one state to another is unknown, because the workings of Gulf state governments are largely hidden. But writing last year in the journal City, John Burt, a marine biologist at New York University Abu Dhabi, argued that “the highly centralized decision-making framework characteristic of governance in this region” might be an advantage in addressing these kinds of problems because of the potential for “rapid changes in policy direction and financial support for…more environmentally sustainable urban development on the Gulf’s coasts.”

First, though, the Gulf states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, together with Iraq and Iran—need to admit that they have a problem. The step after that isn’t to do more research, Sheppard writes: “We already know enough about what is killing the shallow marine habitats of the Gulf—it is no longer a scientific issue and indeed has not been for a couple of decades.”

The job is simply to pay attention to the science that already exists in abundance. For Sheppard, that means “ecological evidence should not be viewed as being just another optional ‘stakeholder input’ alongside the voices of, for example, a construction project’s managers, or an investment company’s interests.” Instead, “construction and investment need to work around the needs of maintaining the ecosystems, because ecosystems cannot work around the needs of a heavily invested construction project.”

If that kind of dramatic shift does not happen soon, the devastation in the Gulf will only accelerate—one more poignant warning to the rest of the world, where ignoring inconvenient environmental science seems to be epidemic.