Singapore (National University of Singapore) Conserving Coral Reefs Through Regional Collaboration & Research

The Asia-Pacific region is home to more than half of the world’s marine species. Coral reefs, in particular, are key ecosystems that support a rich variety of marine life. Despite the important roles that coral reefs play in sustaining life underwater, a number of factors such as climate change, human activities, and coastal modifications threaten their survival.

The 5th Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium was co-organised by NUS and the National Parks Board (NParks) in an effort to bring to light the severity of these threats and find solutions to conserve coral reefs through research and collaboration. Held at NUS University Town in June this year, the five-day symposium gathered over 800 participants from around 40 countries across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

The symposium embodied NUS’ efforts and commitment towards research in conservation and restoration of corals and marine life. With an overarching theme, ‘Coral reef science and management in a rapidly changing world’, the symposium covered a wide range of topics from coral reef histories to emerging technologies that can be used to monitor and assess coral reefs.

Associate Professor Huang Danwei from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, who is the co-chair of the symposium’s organising committee, delivered the opening address, he shared how the theme of the symposium emphasises the need to focus on how environmental issues and climate change have a great impact on coral populations. Assoc Prof Huang also expressed the importance of collaboration between researchers, management, and policymakers in coral reef conservation.

“This Symposium series is also a wonderful platform to develop regional collaborations, and we hope this week will see new teams emerge and existing collaborations flourish. Most importantly, it is a time for old friends to reunite,” said Assoc Prof Huang.

Minister for National Development & Minister-in-charge of Social Services Integration, Mr Desmond Lee, reiterated this theme during his opening remarks. “This Symposium brings scientists, educators, resource managers, and policymakers together to exchange ideas and best practices. By working closely, we can make a bigger impact in what we are doing, and also drive the development of novel, evidence-based strategies for coral reef conservation,” he said.

Mr Lee also made two announcements that are in support of efforts to scale up restoration of coral reefs along Singapore’s coastlines. The first was the 100,000 corals project to enhance Singapore’s existing coral restoration efforts which NParks will spearhead. Another project is the enhancement of Big Sister’s Island funded by Ocean Network Express’ and Singtel’s contributions to NParks’ Garden City Fund to develop a new 230-metre-long coastal forest trail for educational trips and guided tours.

In addition to the coral restoration projects, NUS researchers will take the lead in finding ways to boost coral reef resilience in tropical urban environments and studying carbon captured by Singapore’s coastal and marine ecosystems. These projects are the first to be awarded grants under the $25 million multi-stakeholder Marine Climate Change Science (MCCS) research programme, which aims to build the resilience of natural ecosystems against climate change.

Assoc Prof Huang will lead the project to develop methods of bioengineering corals that can withstand drastic fluctuations in environmental conditions. These corals will host beneficial microorganisms that can promote coral adaptability and be transplanted to native reefs for restoration.

This project is especially vital as Singapore’s southern islands is home to around 250 species of corals. Assoc Prof Huang’s research is in line with NPark’s Species Recovery Programme, which aims to conserve threatened native species through habitat protection and enhancement.

The second project that was awarded the MCCS grant will be measuring and studying Singapore’s blue carbon, that is carbon captured by oceans and coastal ecosystems like mangroves. Led by Assistant Professor Tang Hao from the NUS Department of Geography, this project will aim to create a database of where Singapore’s blue carbon ecosystems are, how much is stored, and how these ecosystems have changed over the years.

Asst Prof Tang hopes that the data collected through this study can show the potential of blue carbon in helping Singapore to meet climate change targets and the importance of conserving these natural ecosystems in tackling global warming.