Can we save coral reefs?

Author:Manfrino, Carrie

The United Nations has reported that 70 per cent of the Earth's coral reefs are threatened: 20 per cent have already been destroyed with no hope for recovery, 24 per cent are under imminent risk of collapse, and an additional 26 per cent are at risk due to longer-term threats. (1) Coastal ecosystem degradation is especially problematic, as 40 per cent (3.1 billion) of the world's population lives within 100 kilometres of the ocean, which means that massive losses to coral reef ecosystems are also an economic and social issue. (2) Reef structures protect coastal communities from storm waves, provide sand for beaches and generate enormous recreational revenue for local businesses. Coral reefs also serve as the twenty-first century's medicine cabinet. Myriad organisms, including sponges, corals and sea hares, contain molecules that express potent anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-tumour and/or anti-bacterial effects. New treatments for Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, viruses and inflammation are being developed from these molecules. The collapse of coral reefs has far-reaching implications for the entire ocean, for people and, indeed, for the planet. Going forward, the focus must be on how to conserve what is left, ideally taking bold, decisive steps to reverse the unthinkable trajectory. Such solutions will require innovations and partnerships that can spearhead the societal-level change needed to halt the damage to coral reefs and reverse the downward trend in their health and survival.

Time is not on our side, but the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development outlines a plan for the future protection of the ocean. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) bring a sharper focus on the economic, social and cultural ramifications of major declines in fish populations, coral reef ecosystems and coastal erosion due to sea level rise and poor management. (3) For instance, SDG 14 describes the need to reduce marine pollution; regulate the harvesting of fish; and end overfishing, unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible. The goal is to sustainably manage and protect at least 10 per cent of marine and coastal ecosystems by 2020, and to strengthen their resilience and take action for their restoration.

With 70 per cent of coral reefs already gone or threatened, however, greater levels of protection will be required to potentially compensate for the increasing stress brought on by climate change. Corals turn white and 'bleach' as symbiotic algae are essentially expelled from the animal when stressed. Prolonged periods of higher-than-normal sea surface temperature have led to global coral mortality, events that climate models predict will only become more frequent. (4) Some studies show that managed, no-take marine reserves with 50 per cent of the reefs under protection are not immune to warming seas but are capable of recovering. (5) Unfortunately, the...

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