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Scientists conducting a global study of coral reefs are surveying the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean after selecting it as the latest destination to gather data to aid worldwide conservation efforts.

A crew from the Catlin Seaview Survey is now exploring and mapping the archipelago’s coral reefs. The area, about 500 nautical miles south of the Maldives and around twice the size of the United Kingdom, consists of hundreds of individual reefs. But the region remains mostly unexplored, with only patchy cartographic coverage dating from 1998.

“Communities are more interested in undertaking conservation actions when they can clearly see how their actions will have direct benefits.”

Michael Webster, Coral Reef Alliance 

The Catlin team is creating an extensive database of satellite-located, panoramic images of the reefs, along with scientific data on reef growth and environmental impacts. This material will be added to the Catlin Global Reef Record online database, which already hosts more than 217,000 panoramic images.

This open-access database is intended to enable scientists around the world to collaborate on research to understand coral reef and marine environments. It is also meant to provide insights for policymakers, especially in countries with limited capacity for coral conservation.

“Many countries do not have the resources required to regularly measure the health of their coral reef ecosystems across large scales,” says Sara Naylor, the survey’s project manager, who is based at Australia’s University of Queensland. “Socioeconomic and political factors play a role in reducing the ability to put effective conservation strategies in place. But the failure of having insufficient standardised and readily available data only adds to the problem.”

The survey team’s work on the Chagos Archipelago is happening in close communication with other marine research laboratories around the world. This is particularly important to spur awareness of coral reef exploitation and conservation among populations living close to coral reefs, says Michael Webster, executive director of the Coral Reef Alliance, an NGO focused on protecting reefs.

“Communities are more interested in undertaking conservation actions when they can clearly see how their actions will have direct benefits,” Webster says. “By understanding how pristine reefs work relative to degraded reefs, researchers can identify the most important threats to reefs and help local communities understand what kinds of benefits degraded reefs could provide if they were rehabilitated.”

Since the Catlin Seaview Survey began in 2012, the team has researched coral reefs in Australasia, the Caribbean, Bermuda and in South-East Asia. The team is funded by the Catlin Group insurance company.

Link to the Catlin Seaview Survey
Link to the Catlin Global Reef Record