In a bid to protect the environment, Thailand has decided to shut down more than 10 diving sites in its marine parks as the coral bleaching crisis in the country persists, an official said on May 26.

The booming tourism industry in the Southeast Asian country supports its lagging economy, and closing down diving sites would drive away tourism profits.

Despite that, the government is keen on saving its local ecosystem. The growing swarms of visitors and rising sea temperatures have damaged coral reefs, says Ruengsak Teekasuk, an official at the Department of National Parks.

Ruengsak says unaware tourists and divers affect coral reefs when they step on or touch the reef.

"Closing those spots will help the reefs recover naturally," says Ruengsak.

The closed diving sites are located in beaches that stretch from Rayong province in the east to Satun in the south.

According to the Marine National Park Division (MNPD), coral bleaching has spread between 40 to 80 percent of the reefs located in the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand to the west coast by the Andaman Sea.

The worst-hit areas are Koh Ma Prao and Koh Chumpon, says Nattapol Rattanaphan, MNPD director.

Coral bleaching occurs when algae inside corals that give them color die off, either because of extreme weather or rising sea temperatures.

If sea temperatures reach about 30.5 degrees Celsius (86.9 degrees Fahrenheit) and above, coral reefs would begin to bleach and continue for at least two to three weeks.

Rattanaphan says sea temperatures have been unusually high in Thailand and have even reached 34 degrees Celsius (93.2 degrees Fahrenheit) at one point.

This surge in temperature peaked around early April to early May this year, and lasted for weeks.

Corals can survive bleaching, but they even more become vulnerable to further damage as the condition continues.

The closed diving sites will be examined just before the peak of tourist season, which begins in November.

The country's announcement to shut down diving sites follows the closing of the popular Thai island Koh Tachai due to concerns of deterioration and damage.

"If it's not closed now, we'll lose Koh Tachai permanently," warns Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a professor in Thailand.

The island will be off-limits from the public beginning Oct.15 this year.

Photo: Ryan Lackey | Flickr

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