Dr. Choi Kwang-Sik sits with Jeju Weekly to discuss pressing concerns to the marine ecology of Jeju’s waters. Due to global warming, Jeju is experiencing an influx of aquatic life unknown to the area that may cause unpredictable and irrevocable changes to the underwater ecosystem. Photo by Yasmin Aboelsaud
Some of Jeju’s treasures are clearly visible, while others are tucked beneath the surface of the bright blue ocean. The hidden gems in Jeju’s waters create a colourful display of all shapes and sizes, almost disguising its essential ocean habitats and species; the extraordinary marine ecosystem which attracts tourists and scientists alike.
“This place [Jeju] is so important because we’re not really located in a subtropical environment, but it is becoming really subtropical due to global warming,” said Dr. Choi Kwang-Sik, a marine ecology professor at Jeju National University, commenting on the tropical and subtropical species that gather in Jeju’s waters. “The biodiversity is really high in terms of numbers of species.”
The southern coast of Jeju is the main habitat for corals, as the coral distribution is confined to the areas with the warm currents called, Kuroshio. “We got Kuroshio and the cold water coming in and mixing in Jeju, and that’s why we have many different species and marine creatures living in Jeju Island, in coasts and even offshore,” explained Dr. Choi, who first visited Jeju as a young student in 1980 and fell in love with the island while snorkeling. Dr. Choi would visit the island every summer and winter after that, until making it his permanent home in 1995.
Although he hasn’t snorkeled or dived in Jeju recently, Dr. Choi sees underwater photographs taken by local SCUBA divers and his university students each year and has been noticing some changes. “I see certain species from tropical areas, like the small and poisonous Portuguese man-of-war.”
The Portuguese man-of-war is a kind of jellyfish and its beautiful blue colour resembles the shape of a balloon. Like other jelly fishes, its tentacles are covered in venom. Although not deadly, the sting is known to be excruciating for humans.
“They’re floating away from the tropical areas, like Okinawa or Taiwan,” said Dr. Choi. “In the past, there would be one or two. Nowadays, every summer they come. That’s a certain sign of global warming,” he added.
Even during the winter, Jeju’s water temperature remains over 15 degrees Celsius, while the mainland’s water hovers around the 5 to 10 degrees mark. The temperature is essential in maintaining the distinctive coral life. It is the reason Seogwipo and the south of the island, are the main coral habitats around Jeju. Surrounding the Munseom islet are some of the most impressive corals and fish species; so impressive that Munseom, along with the Beomseom(Tiger) islet nearby, were designated Natural Monument Protection Areas in 2001. These are sites frequented by tourists and SCUBA divers. They are home to Jeju’s soft coral communities.
The soft corals, oyster reef systems, and gorgonians, which are prominent reefs that attach to rocks, have various types of habitats like sloping rocks, offshore banks, and pinnacles under water. Soft coral communities can be confused with coral reefs, but they are not the same. “Soft coral community is not a reef. Reef means you have a main frame coral, but we don’t have that here, we have only solitary stony coral commonly found in temperate waters,” said Dr. Choi. Coral reefs require warm water, over 20 degrees Celsius even in the winter, which does not happen in Jeju.
With this invaluable underwater treasure, citizens of Jeju realize the importance of protecting its biodiversity and marine ecosystem, especially with the growing number of SCUBA divers and ecotourists. The Jeju National University, with support from Sea Grant, offered a free course this semester for the public regarding ecotourism and marine biodiversity. About 50 students are enrolled, most with professions related to marine biology or tourism on the island, hoping to expand their experience and knowledge about Jeju’s ecology.
Some programs are also available for junior high and high school students interested in marine biology. Dr. Choi explained the necessity of such programs, “to give them some inspiration. Who knows, in the future they may become marine biologists.” And Jeju will need them.
With global warming, the biodiversity is changing annually. Sustaining and protecting Jeju’s aquatic treasure is an ongoing process. It is not just imperative for environmental reasons, but for tourism, which affects the socio-economics of the local communities.
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