Protecting the Red Sea’s Coral Reefs

coral-reef_websiteThe Red Sea is home to some of the world’s few remaining pristine coral reefs. These reefs are not only beautiful, but also extremely diverse with close to 300 species of hard coral recorded throughout the Red Sea. Of the 1,200 or so species of fish that call these reefs home, about 10% are found nowhere else.

Nevertheless, with population growth along the coasts, the health of these coral reefs, especially those along the Saudi Arabia border, may be in jeopardy. Fortunately, Dr. Daniel Roelke, a Professor of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences with support through the Institute of Applied Mathematics and Computational Biology at Texas A&M University, is partnering with faculty at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to ensure the safety of these reefs as well as the marine biota living on and within the reefs.

Impacts of Development Along the Red Sea
Saudi Arabia is traditionally known for an economy based in petroleum oils. In 2005, however, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia, announced a megaproject to diversify the country’s economy. As a result of this megaproject, the coast along the Red Sea has since become more industrialized, rapidly increasing the population living in this area.

Saudi-Arabia-mapAs the population along the coast rises, the need for more freshwater and food production follows suit. To meet this need, desalinization plants and fisheries have popped up all long the Red Sea coastline.

An increase in desalinization, the process by which salt water is turned into freshwater suitable for human consumption, and aquaculture activities are directly impacting water circulation and the balance of nutrients within the water, potentially harming the coral reefs.

Brine, the by-product of the desalinization process, contains many concentrated chemicals. “Although the brine is usually disposed of in wells or discharged in the ocean with regulations, in many cases the regulation lacks monitoring and enforcement,” said Dr. Roelke. “Areas of coastal oceans that have restricted circulation, such as shallow regions between fringing reefs and the shoreline, are most susceptible to the toxic effects of brine discharge.”

The increased aquaculture activities along the coast have also led to an overflowing of water containing feed wastage, chemicals from animal excretion, and fecal material. This polluted water significantly contributes to the nutrient loading of the Red Sea, affecting the growth of phytoplankton, photosynthesizing microscopic organisms.

Phytoplankton Interactions
Phytoplankton inhabit the upper sunlit layer of almost all oceans and bodies of water, controlling the amount of light that reaches organisms below the water’s surface, such as coral reefs.

These plankton communities are sensitive to both nutrient loadings and changes in the depth of vertical water mixing, which can affect phytoplankton biomass. Nitrogen and phosphorus, both prevalent during nutrient loading, increase phytoplankton growth, shifting the composition of the phytoplankton assemblages. Since phytoplankton biomass and composition influence light level at varied wavelengths, the shift in composition can lead to significant shifts in the spectral quality of the underwater light field.

“Though it is uncertain how this shift in spectral quality will affect the coral reefs long-term, it is known that reefs are influenced by the magnitude and quality of light available to them,” said Dr. Roelke. “For example, coral populations acclimated at one depth do not perform as well when moved to another depth.”

Through a combination of numerical modeling, in-field experimentation, and monitoring, Dr. Roelke and his colleagues at KAUST are working to better understand the relationships among nutrient loading, mixing depth, phytoplankton biomass and composition, and spectral quality of light incident upon the coral reefs of the Red Sea. 

Broader Impacts

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King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) viewed from the Red Sea. Photo courtesy of Dr. Daniel Roelke.

This research will undoubtedly have a major influence on the health of the coral reefs, however, there are broader impacts of this partnership research project.

The research team, which includes Dr. Jay Walton, a Professor of Mathematics and Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University, and several faculty members from KAUST, is dedicated to the advancement of women in the STEM fields. “By recruiting and advancing women graduate students with computational training,” Dr. Roelke said, “our research will broaden participation of an underrepresented group in the discipline of quantitative ecology.”

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Dr. Daniel Roelke with graduate student Frances Withrow on the KAUST campus. Photo courtesy of Dr. Roelke.

Dr. Roelke’s graduate student Frances Withrow, a masters student enrolled in a joint degree program with Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and the Peace Corps, has already played a significant role in developing the model that will be used in further Red Sea research. She has presented these findings at professional conferences in New Orleans, Honolulu and Saudi Arabia.

Because of the partnership with KAUST, this research project will also help to lower cultural barriers between non-Muslims and Muslims. “One way to counter cultural stigmatization is to increase the personal interactions between people of varied cultural backgrounds,” added Dr. Roelke. “This research project offers an excellent opportunity for this level of interaction, since much of the research will be coordinated at KAUST, an academic environment that is quite diverse.”

KAUST’s faculty and student population come from more than 60 nationalities from around the world. It is planned that graduate students involved in this research project will live at KAUST for a period, where they will receive international mentoring, enroll in classes, and participate in workshops and seminars. They will be immersed in an environment filled with opportunities for personal multicultural interactions.

“This research stretches beyond protecting our environment,” said Dr. Roelke. “It’s exciting to be a part of a project that is empowering students at Texas A&M University and KAUST to reach across cultural boundaries to save the Red Sea coral reefs, one of world’s most beautiful treasures.”

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