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Relocating corals at Sultan Shoal

Corals near one of Singapore's lighthouses, Sultan Shoal, are being moved in a conservation project to protect them from development works for the future Tuas Terminal.

SINGAPORE: Corals near one of Singapore's lighthouses, Sultan Shoal, are being moved in a conservation project to protect them from development works for the future Tuas Terminal.

Just over half of the estimated 2,800 hard coral colonies on the reef will be relocated, and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said divers have completed about 80 per cent of the move so far.

For the past seven months, marine biologists and volunteers have been diving into the waters around Sultan Shoal -- a rare sight in an area normally closed to the public.

Volunteer diver Debby Ng said: "So many sea cucumbers totally littering the reef. The reef had lots of anemonefish... which was really nice to see, so a lot of activity under water."

It is no ordinary fun dive. With chisel and hammer, divers harvest coral from the reef piece by piece, transport them to their new home, and reattach them to the seabed with underwater cement.

From Sultan Shoal in southwest Singapore, the corals will be moved to three different sites on the Sisters' Islands and St John's Island.

"We have one of the busiest ports in the world, so a lot of shipping," said DHI Water & Environment’s principal marine biologist Eugene Goh, who is leading the relocation project. "The waters around the southern islands of Singapore also experience strong currents very often, so that's something we need to plan for before we go diving."

What is being moved are mostly hard corals, the building blocks of a coral reef.

The living tissue is only a very thin layer on the top of the coral. The bottom is the skeleton, and it is literally rock. So the process of removing coral from the seabed, if done carefully, does not actually damage the coral.

Mr Goh said the transplanted coral have about 70 to 80 per cent chance of survival, but moving coral is still a last resort for conservation.

He explained: "You can't totally transplant a reef. It's just not feasible; there are organisms that are just not transplantable."

Even so, relocation may be the Sultan Shoal corals' best bet for survival, as development works for the future Tuas Terminal begin in surrounding waters.

A long-term project, the Tuas port is expected to consolidate all of Singapore's container port activities, currently spread over four locations: Tanjong Pagar, Keppel, Pulau Brani and Pasir Panjang.

The first set of berths at Tuas is expected to start running in 10 years' time.

MPA’s chief executive, Andrew Tan, said: "Singaporeans have reached a stage in development where they would like to see not only a city like ours being globally competitive, but also paying attention to identity, values, environment.

“So I think what we're doing is totally aligned with what Singaporeans would expect, and I think the best part is we're working together to make it all possible."

With coral reefs in decline worldwide, what remains of Singapore's coral reefs today are valuable for their biodiversity, said National University of Singapore’s department of biological sciences Professor Chou Loke Ming.

He elaborated: "Our reefs have been reduced, but whatever has remained is still representative of a very high diversity of corals. 250 species, compared to 600 in the whole of Southeast Asia."

The project team will monitor the health of both the transplanted coral and the Sultan Shoal reef over the next five years.

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