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4 years after tsunami, coral reefs on rebound

Tourists and others lit candles during a service to remember tsunami victims at a beach in Phuket, Thailand, yesterday. Tourists and others lit candles during a service to remember tsunami victims at a beach in Phuket, Thailand, yesterday. (DAVID LONGSTREATH/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Michael Casey
Associated Press / December 27, 2008
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BANGKOK - Southeast Asia's tsunami-ravaged coral reefs have bounced back with surprising speed, according to a study released yesterday, four years after the deadly waves hit.

The findings came as communities across the Indian Ocean remembered the disaster that struck Dec. 26, 2004 with prayers, songs, and tears. About 230,000 people were killed in a dozen countries when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered the tsunami.

Surveys of coral reefs after the tsunami showed that up to one-third were damaged, and researchers predicted that it would take a decade for them to fully recover.

Scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, working with the Indonesian government and the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said their examination of 60 sites on 500 miles of coastline along Indonesia's Aceh province showed the reefs were recovering.

"On the 4th anniversary of the tsunami, this is a great story of ecosystem resilience and recovery," said Stuart Campbell, coordinator of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Indonesia Marine Program.

"Our scientific monitoring is showing rapid growth of young corals in areas where the tsunami caused damage, and also the return of new generations of corals in areas previously damaged by destructive fishing," Campbell said in a statement. "These findings provide new insights into coral recovery processes that can help us manage coral reefs in the face of climate change."

Healthy coral reefs are economic engines for Acehnese communities, Campbell added, supplying fish to eat and sell as well as tourism dollars from recreational diving.

The tsunami-damaged coastlines across the Indian Ocean, wiping out villages, killing entire families, and crippling the economies in parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

The United Nations estimated that Aceh alone lost $332.4 million from the loss of its reefs to the destructive waves.

But four years later, the multibillion dollar rebuilding process is almost complete with more than 120,000 homes built in Aceh alone and the reconstruction of tourist hotels and restaurants along Thailand's Andaman coast.

Thousands gathered yesterday to celebrate the progress but to also remember the dead and reflect on a calamity that turned their lives upside down.

"I don't think people will ever forget the tsunami. It changed a lot of people's lives," said Alisara Na-Takuatung, a local Phuket radio disc jockey who took part in a ceremony on Thailand's Patong beach attended by 200 people.

About 50 Buddhist monks prayed while school children played traditional Thai instruments.

"I know people who lost their husbands, their kids. Those people won't forget about the tsunami," she said. "They will see it as a lesson. You think about what you can do for others."

Ibrahim Musa, a 42-year-old civil servant who joined thousands in a prayer service in the hard-hit Aceh province of Indonesia, said it doesn't seem as though four years have passed since his family was taken by the sea. "Now I have no choice but to accept their departure as destiny," he said.

In India, where thousands also perished, interfaith prayers and a moment of silence were held. The Sri Lankan government declared two minutes of silence for the 35,000 people killed there as well as other victims of natural disasters.

The healing efforts have extended to the reefs, with communities responding to calls to protect them from illegal fishing, pollution, and coastal development.

Campbell said citizens have been particularly responsive in Aceh where fishermen have stopped using illegal techniques such as dynamiting and villagers have transplanted corals into areas that were hardest hit.

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