KUALA LUMPUR: Coral reefs in the country are experiencing significant mass coral bleaching due to rising sea surface temperatures, potentially having serious implications for marine biodiversity, coral reef fisheries and tourism in Malaysia.

In a statement today, the Department of Fisheries Malaysia (DOF) reported that this issue was identified through assistance and reports received from local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), scuba diving operators, scuba divers as well as coral bleaching monitoring conducted by NGOs and local researchers.

The DOF added that it is closely monitoring several Marine Park Islands, following more than 50 per cent of coral reefs being affected.

Based on surveys conducted from April to June, some of the affected areas were found to be Pulau Payar in Kedah; Pulau Perhentian, Pulau Redang and Pulau Tenggol in Terengganu; Pulau Tioman in Pahang; and Pulau Pemanggil in Johor.

“Most of the affected reefs are in shallow waters less than 10 metres deep. These sites are being closely monitored by the DOF and various parties to detect changes in the bleaching situation,“ it added.

Coral bleaching is the natural response of corals to environmental stress, causing the corals to turn white and appear ‘bleached’. Mass bleaching refers to large-scale bleaching of various coral species over extensive areas, due to seawater temperatures exceeding the average normal annual temperature for prolonged periods.

In response to this issue, the DOF is collaborating with representatives from Sabah, Sarawak, local researchers and NGOs to set up the Malaysia Coral Bleaching Response Committee (MCBRC) to gather information and take action against coral bleaching.

“If bleaching exceeds 80 per cent, further management interventions may include temporary access restrictions to protect the affected reefs.

“However, the DOF assures all stakeholders that any disruptions to tourism activities caused by these management interventions will be minimised,” it said.

This is aimed at reducing the stress on already weakened reefs to ensure the survival of marine organisms in the future.

As such, the DOF urged all parties to report any instances of coral bleaching and called for public involvement to help minimise the impact of coral bleaching.

Tourism operators on Marine Park islands are also encouraged to control the number of tourists participating in water recreational activities to reduce stress on coral reefs.

“Tourists should avoid crowded areas, refrain from any physical contact with corals during water activities, reduce the use of single-use plastics, dispose of waste properly and report sightings of coral bleaching to the DOF or relevant authorities,” it said.

The statement noted that the recovery process for bleached corals can take from several weeks to several months but monitoring efforts will be carried out continuously.

“An action plan has been prepared and further information will be provided once available,” it added.

The DOF emphasised the economic and ecological importance of coral reefs, saying they provide habitat and breeding grounds for up to one-third of marine species.

Based on the DOF research, the economic value of Marine Parks, which are largely surrounded by coral reef ecosystems, amounts to RM8.7 billion annually through various ecosystem services.