Undersea housing for marine life to create Singapore's largest artificial reef

A prototype of Singapore's largest artificial reef. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

SINGAPORE - "Terrace houses" for coral and marine life will soon have pride of place in the waters off the Southern Islands, in an ambitious effort to create the nation's largest artificial reef.

The National Parks Board (NParks) and JTC Corporation are working on the project at the Sisters' Islands Marine Park, which will see 10m high structures placed in the waters by the end of the year. They will be made from concrete and recycled rocks from JTC's other projects.

The idea is to transform what is now bare seabed into a thriving marine ecosystem by giving corals a place to take root, which will in turn attract fish and other sea life.

Singapore is home to more than 250 species of hard corals, about one-third of the worldwide diversity. Singapore reefs have also responded more resiliently against recent bleaching events, compared to other parts of the world.

NParks Director for Coastal and Marine at the National Biodiversity Centre, Dr Karenne Tun, said the location of the artificial reef is ideal for a "source reef" due to the geography and current flow.

"When mature, its coral larvae will reach other areas and feed the other reefs in Singapore."

Noted JTC's deputy director for Engineering and Operations John Kiong: "It's akin to a three-storey terrace house lowered into the sea." To avoid environmental impact, the structures, which will be off Pulau Subar Darat (Small Sisters island), will have anchor pins to hold them in place without the need for piling. The structures also require no maintenance.

While previous research projects used artificial structures to renew parts of existing reefs, this is the first time an entire reef will be created. It will have a total surface area of 500sqm, and pave the way for future projects.

Coral reef scientist Professor Chou Loke Ming, who is the project consultant, said he expects to see "coral recruits" - or tiny coral colonies, forming just six months after the structures are installed. This could be even faster if coral fragments are transplanted from other reefs.

NParks also has a nursery where corals are bred, which can then be introduced to the artificial reef. It hopes to introduce rarer species and increase the variety of corals at the reef.

JTC said the project is part of its commitment to responsible development. Its engineering expertise also comes in handy with the building of the reef structures.

The project was also designed with input from the public, such as Friends of the Marine Park Community.

Prof Chou said that he was excited by the size and scaleability of the project.

Stressing the the importance of sustaining marine biodiversity in the face of rapid urbanisation and climate change pointing out that 60 per cent of Singapore's natural reef area has already been lost due to development.

He added that sedimentation has also compressed the coral growth zone. Corals previously grew at water depths in excess of 12m, but are now restricted to around depths of 8m because sunlight, which the corals need to survive, does not penetrate deeper.

Dr Tun added that active intervention is needed to sustain marine biodiversity. Giving one example, she said that that researchers found a specimen from the rare coral species, Stylophora pistillata, in 2006, and monitored its growth in the wild.
Unfortunately, the coral died during the 2010 mass bleaching event.

"It highlighted the need for continuous monitoring and active intervention to safeguard the locally rare and uncommon species", Dr Tun said.

As part of NParks species recovery program, it has collected several species of locally rare corals like Gardineroseris planulata, and broke off pieces to create more individuals.

The announcement coincides with the start of NPark's Biodiversity week. Members of the public are invited to the Festival Of Biodiversity on 2 and 3 June, at the open space between Tampines MRT and Tampines mall. A prototype of the artificial reef will be on display.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.