Saving reef life in the Maldives

A clownfish breeding centre has been established on Naifaru Island in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean as part of a New Colombo Plan Program at Flinders University.

Led by a group of enthusiastic Flinders Biological Sciences students and Associate Professor Karen Burke da Silva, Dean (Education) of the College of Science and Engineering, it is the first time the Flinders breeding program has been adapted overseas.

With the aquarium trade and environmental degradation affecting clownfish and other reef species around the world, the venture has real importance, says Associate Professor Burke da Silva, who established the successful clownfish breeding program at Flinders University about eight years ago.

Thousands of various species of clownfish have been successfully bred and sold into the aquarium trade from the ‘Saving Nemo’ initiative and Flinders University student, staff and volunteer breeding centre – all to help reduce the number of wild-caught clownfish removed from tropical waters in Australia.

In July this year, 16 Flinders students worked with the not-for-profit Atoll Volunteers Group conservation program to help set up tanks and systems for breeding, including water quality and feeding regimes. Atoll Volunteers receives some funding from the Canadian Government for various conservation projects around the world.

“Unfortunately some of the reef near the main island of Naifaru in the Maldives went through a major bleaching event last year, similar to what happened on the Great Barrier Reef,” says Associate Professor Burke da Silva. “The reef within Lhaviyana Atoll is in pretty poor condition. Most of the coral has bleached with only about 10% of the shallow part of the reef still living.

“We also saw a lot of plastic and garbage on the island atolls, which was quite a contrast to what you see at the tourist resorts in the Maldives.”

In just over a fortnight, the Flinders volunteers got to work on using the University’s experience in captive clownfish breeding – along with sea turtle rescue and other conservation work, including working with the local community on managing their natural resources.

Students compiled regular blogs, photos, videos and other materials, the best of which will be judged as part of their studies.

The best student blogs and photos from the Maldives trip will be shared online later this month.

“We look forward to seeing the local species, including the Maldivian clownfish which is under threat, make a comeback if the captive bred fish start supplying the aquaria trade,” Associate Professor Burke da Silva says.

Associate Professor Burke da Silva says a coral research centre has recently closed and the sustainability of the Maldivian fishing industry was being affected by international fishing.

“Our students wrote articles about the turtle and Manta Ray conservation programs, worked on coral monitoring projects, assayed the biodiversity of the land and sea and looked at the impact of garbage on the wildlife, she says.

“Our students also had some amazing cultural experiences, including running a stall at the turtle festival and visiting local islands to speak to local people including teachers and school children.”

One of the highlights of the trip was to assist with the release of baby sea turtles which had been kept as pets – along with the return to sea of several mature sea turtles that had been caught in ghost nets or hurt by boat propellors.

This project was supported by the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan which funds a series of projects every year at Flinders and other universities around Australia.

For more information go to the Flinders University website or next information session.  The next information session will be held on 31 August and others are scheduled in September and October.

Next year’s New Colombo Plan opportunities will be announced soon.

Donations for Flinders University’s clownfish conservation program can be made online here

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