Image: Coral reef
Fishes swim through a newly discovered reef off the coast of Thailand in a photo provided by the World Wide Fund for Nature. Tipped off by local fishermen, WWF divers in January found what they say is a healthy reef with over 30 genera of hard corals and at least 112 species of fish.
updated 2/22/2006 11:27:19 PM ET 2006-02-23T04:27:19

A coral reef spanning several hundred acres and teeming with fish has been discovered off the coast of Thailand and should be given protected status, the World Wide Fund for Nature said Wednesday.

Tipped off by local fishermen, WWF divers in January found what they say is a healthy, 667-acre (270-hectare) reef in southern Thailand with over 30 genera of hard corals, and at least 112 species of fish.

Among the fish species identified, the WWF said, was a type of parrot fish first discovered in Sri Lanka and never before seen in Thailand, and a species of the sweet lips fish previously only found in the Similan Islands.

The reef is off the coast of Khao Lak, a popular tourist destination on the Andaman Sea coast of Thailand.

"I believe discussions with fishermen over a wider area will lead us to discover even more important reefs, not yet mapped or protected by the authorities" Songpol Tippayawong, head of the WWF Thailand Marine and Coastal Conservation Unit, said in a statement.

"This reef is easily accessible to dive operators from nearby Khao Lak, and if managed properly can become a prominent local dive site while also contributing an important source of income to the local community," he said.

Not on any maps
WWF said that it was working closely with Thailand's Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the Department of National Parks, local communities and dive operators to ensure that the reef is properly managed, which could lead to it being included in a marine national park.

Sombat Poovachiranon, a marine biologist with the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, said the reef was not on any of his department's maps.

"We are looking forward to doing a survey in the area," Sombat said. "It's quite a large area. In my opinion, this should be a marine protected area. But we have to talk to the local communities first."

Good news for reef fans
The discovery is a dose of good news for the state of reefs, which have been battered by overfishing, development and more recently the 2004 tsunami, which heavily damaged them in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India.

A U.N. report in December found that close to a third of the world's corals have vanished, and 60 percent are expected to be lost by 2030. More than a third of all mangroves have disappeared, with the rate of loss greater than that of tropical rain forests, the report found.

A report released Monday from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network found that most coral reefs in the path of the December 2004 tsunami escaped "serious damage" and should recover in less than 10 years, though much will depend on local government's protecting marine ecosystems.

The report found that reefs in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand were hardest hit by massive waves with damage reaching up to 30 percent in some places. But much like earlier studies, it found that human activities like illegal fishing and climate change pose the greatest risk to the future of these reefs.

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