BANGKOK, Thailand -- A new coral reef discovered in Phang Nga’s Tai Muang area covers some four square kilometres and accounts for about 5 per cent of all the coral areas in the Andaman Sea.
Lying around five kilometres offshore are more than 30 genera of hard corals providing home to 12 species of fish from 56 families, said Songpol Tippayawong, head of WWF Thailand’s Marine and Coastal Conservation Unit, which discovered the coral site.
“The fish living there include such rare species as the parrot fish Chlorurus rakaura, which was first discovered in Sri Lanka and has never before been seen in Thai waters. The reef also has a species of the sweetlips fish, the Plectorhincus macrospilus, which was previously known only from the Similan Islands,” he explained.
The Thai chapter of the leading international environmental group first heard about the coral reef from local fishermen, Songpol said.
“We discovered [the new reef] after talking with local fishermen while we were conducting a survey for our Green Coast project,” he said, referring to the group’s tsunami recovery project for indigenous marine life and local fishing communities.
“The discovery helps us understand why sea turtles in the Andaman Sea use the Thai Muang area as their major nest site: the reef is a source of food for turtles and their offspring,” Songpol said.
Nearby Had Tai Muang is known as the only beach in Thailand where sea turtles living in the Andaman Sea lay their eggs. As many as four species of sea turtle lay their eggs on a 14km long stretch of the beach.
Yet the discovery of the new coral reef poses conservation challenges, Songpol said. It is feared it will draw hordes of tour operators peddling visits to the untouched reef to scuba-diving tourists. As a result, the WWF is keeping the precise location of the newly discovered site a secret for the time being.
“The reef needs special protection,” he said. “Marine life there is in a very healthy condition having suffered only limited interference from humans.”
The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) is in the process of including the site on its Andaman coral reefs map, highlighting it as protected area under the National Marine Park Act, Songpol added.
A source in Phang Nga said that although locals endorsed the idea of keeping the reef free from interference, they were concerned the act’s strict regulations would prohibit locals from gaining access to their traditional fishing sites.
“We should conserve the coral reef, but local villagers who have been earning a living [from fishing] in the area should be allowed to continue their way of life,” the source said. “If tourism activities like diving will be allowed at the site, local villagers should also be allowed to benefit [from tourism].”
Songpol agreed. He said the WWF Thailand was working closely with DMCR officials to set up a long-term plan to preserve the area.
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