AsianScientist (Nov. 25, 2015) – Dotted with old shophouses that are home to a 90-year-old Hainanese kopitiam, achingly hip cafes, and much else, Singapore’s East Coast area is known for its laid back charm. For Chou Loke Ming, a recently retired professor of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore, it is the place where he first fell in love — with the sea.
“When the fishermen came back from a day’s work and started to put their catch on the shore, the whole community would come down and have a look, myself included,” Professor Chou muses, recalling his childhood growing up in the Siglap neighbourhood. “That’s when I started to become very interested in the sea and anything to do with marine life.”
After completing his PhD on house lizards at the University of Singapore—because the university was looking for lecturers to teach vertebrate zoology—Professor Chou turned his fascination with the sea into a thirty-year career in marine ecology and conservation, with a special focus on coral reefs. Commonly mistaken for plants due to their extremely slow growth, corals are actually animals closely related to sea anemones and jellyfish.
The so-called “rainforests of the sea” occupy only 0.1% of the ocean’s surface yet are home to 25% of the world’s marine species. The secret to this amazing biodiversity is a unique partnership between coral animals and single-celled algae known as zooxanthellae.
These photosynthetic algae reside within each coral polyp, supplying the corals with as much as 90% of their energy requirements. In turn, the corals absorb calcium from the surrounding seawater, building a hard, protective structure that can grow to become a massive coral reef like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the only living entity visible from space.
Shaping and re-shaping Singapore
Although coral reefs need a long time to develop—the Great Barrier Reef has been growing for half a million years—their destruction can be swift. In the 1960s, Singapore was looking for a fast way to meet the demands of a growing population. Land reclamation had long been part of Singapore’s developmental strategy; it was first used in 1822 to create the area today known as South Boat Quay.
However, land reclamation reached an unprecedented scale in the post-independence years, with an aggressive plan that saw Singapore’s land area increase from 580 sq km in 1960 to 630 sq km by 1990. Today, it stands at 720 sq km, almost 25% larger than it was just before independence.
Involving the levelling of hills and dredging of the sea floor, the extensive land reclamation has almost completely smothered the costal coral reefs surrounding mainland Singapore and left whatever remains threatened by extremely high sedimentation levels that block out the sunlight needed for photosynthesis.
Research by Professor Chou shows that Singapore has lost 65% of its coral reefs since 1986, in large part due to land reclamation. [By comparison, over the same period the Great Barrier Reef lost 50% of its coral coverage, largely due to cyclone damage and a population explosion of destructive crown-of thorns starfishes.]
Most of Singapore’s reefs are now found only off surrounding islands such as Pulau Pawai and Pulau Semakau, which are used for live firing exercises and a landfill, respectively. One of the very few mainland areas where corals can still be found is off Labrador beach.
“I remember Labrador beach from my student days, before the land reclamation, when there was still an extensive rocky shore,” Professor Chou says. “We used to find all kinds of different seashells, cones and cowries, in huge numbers. You can still find them there these days, but you will have to hunt very hard.”
Coral reefs or golf courses?
At an estimated 7,618 people per sq km, Singapore has the third highest population density in the world after Macau (21,190 people per sq km) and Monaco (18,475 people per sq km). With so many competing land-use demands, marine conservation has historically been a low priority. But since the 1970s, Professor Chou has tried convincing Singaporeans that coral reefs are worth saving.
“I remember a permanent secretary asking me why we should preserve the reefs since Singaporeans could easily go to Malaysia or Indonesia if they wanted to go diving,” Professor Chou shares. “I thought for a while and then said, ‘Yes, but the same is true of golf courses.’ The meeting stopped soon after that!”
But by the late 1980s, he says, attitudes had begun to change, in tandem with rising incomes and growing local environmental activism. The government, meanwhile, started participating in international conservation pow-wows such as the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit.
Today, for any construction project, developers need to conduct impact assessment studies, mitigation exercises, and real-time monitoring programmes.
“Projects must be stopped if measurements such as sedimentation exceed certain limits,” says Professor Chou. “[In the past] if we had these measures in place, it would really have helped slow down the total impact to the reefs.”
In the late 1980s, Singapore lacked adequate marine science research, which was needed by conservationists both to understand the scale of the environmental damage and as evidence to convince policy makers to act. However, Singapore was not well known for marine biology and a lack of government support meant that research facilities were few and far between.
“Thankfully, there were a few Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) projects on marine science in the late 1980s, supported by Australia, Canada and the United States,” Professor Chou recounts. “At that time, there were only four other countries in ASEAN [Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines], each of them big countries with a lot of marine space.”
It wasn’t apparent why Singapore deserved a slice of ASEAN’s marine budgets.
“Scientists in the other ASEAN countries would tell me, ‘Singapore is so small, you just need a bicycle to get from one end to the other; you don’t need a boat!’” Professor Chou says. “But in the end, the collegial spirit prevailed and the budget was equally shared.”
The money helped him establish facilities for marine biology—focussing on underwater and scuba capabilities—which allowed more research to be conducted.
Professor Chou has also worked on other international projects. Among other things, he contributed to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), helping to edit the State of the Marine Environment Report for the East Asian Seas (2009), the first such assessment for the region; and was appointed to the UNEP’s regional office in Bangkok to review Cambodia’s coastal management plans.
Singapore’s surprisingly resilient reefs
Professor Chou’s local research revealed a pleasant surprise. In spite of all the damage done to them, Singapore’s coral reefs have still managed to sustain a wide range of wildlife, including 130 species of fish, 250 species of molluscs and over 800 crustacean species.
“The rate of species extinction has not been as drastic as expected, given the scale of the environmental changes,” Professor Chou shares. Of Singapore’s 250 recorded coral species, for instance, while 70 are now “quite rare”, only two have gone extinct locally. Even those that have disappeared may one day return.
In 2014, divers spotted a Neptune’s cup sponge (Cliona patera)—believed to be extinct since 1908—incongruously clinging on to a landfill lagoon. Today the western reefs of both Pulau Tekukor and St John’s Island are part of the Sister’s Islands Marine Park, the first of its kind in Singapore, which was established in 2014 after some thirty years of lobbying by Professor Chou.
“It [The park] will inspire more people to understand that the environment is part of our national heritage, something that we should try to conserve and protect,” Professor Chou says.“But if there is one wish I could have, I would like to see the waters become clear again,” he quips brightly.
“It will take a lot of effort. It will take a lot of money as well. It will take a lot of commitment on the parts of the different agencies. Anything on land development also flows out to the sea, so it’s not work that can be done by a single agency. It will be challenging, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Part of his optimism no doubt comes from the knowledge that the many of his former students have taken up the cause and are continuing his work. Karenne Tun and Jeffrey Low, for instance, are deputy director and senior manager respectively at the National Biodiversity Centre Division.
“If we look at the past 50 years, after all the impact, our natural resources are still there, they haven’t been completely degraded,” says Professor Chou. “Now with all the measures in place—the national marine park, the government agencies, the NGOs—we’re beginning to have more discussion and collaboration. I hope that we will somehow make the waters clear again in the next 50 years, so that the next generation will be able to enjoy the environment just as we have.”
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Bryan van der Beek.
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