Tropical reef community
© Joakant

The underwater forest of life

Date posted: 3 April 2018

2018 is the International Year of the Reef, a worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the value and importance of coral reefs, of threats to reef health, and to motivate people to take action to protect them

Blue horizon in focus workshop, Red sea, Egypt
© Saeed Rashid

There can be no doubt that we are at a critical tipping point, where we will either ensure or fatally compromise our ability to safeguard the world’s coral reefs and the species that will support future generations of humans and countless other species…

HRH the Prince of Wales

You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate how special reefs are. Reefs occupy only 0.1% of the world’s oceans’ surface, yet they harbour 25% of all marine species. They are extremely productive systems, true temples of underwater biodiversity, turning over huge amounts of carbon, similar to the productivity of rainforests.

They are, in fact, the marine equivalent of rainforests and without them the ocean would be a very empty space. Reefs harness the energy of sunlight to build up an astonishing living platform, often in places where nutrients are scarce. The tiny algae that corals keep in the fabric of their tissues fix carbon, and fuel the growth of a reef, providing the basis for a living web of feeding, growing, hiding and hunting animals. Reef systems have been evolving for many millions of years, giving rise to countless species in different parts of the tropics, and providing resources and huge benefits to humankind in recent millennia.

They protect vast coastlines from storm surges, and offer food to an estimated one billion people. So they are hugely important in services to our species relative to their scale. 2018 is the International Year of the Reef, a worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the value and importance of coral reefs, of threats to reef health, and to motivate people to take action to protect them. It is the third such year, announced by the UN-backed International Coral Reef Initiative, and MCS was heavily involved since the launch of the first one, back in 1997. Things have changed since then, but, despite a lot of proactive efforts by governments, communities and NGOs, the outlook for reefs globally is bleaker than ever. MCS is wholly behind the aims of International Year of the Reef 2018 – in our view, we need to redouble efforts to protect coral reefs the world over.

Threats to reef health
1997 happened to coincide with the first truly global coral bleaching event, in which corals became stressed and died through being subjected to temperatures too high for their sustained survival. We are seeing bleaching events more frequently now – the last three years have seen the longest and most extensive coral die-off ever recorded. This impact from global climate change is predicted to worsen for at least the next two to three decades, threatening further destruction to reefs that are already suffering damage from overfishing and pollution.

The aim of the International Year of the Reef campaign is to draw attention to the crisis facing coral reefs and to secure the support necessary from governments, NGOs, businesses and the public. It aims to build on a new level of support for coral reef conservation and science, prompted by the recent global die-off, and help ensure 2018 becomes a turning point for coral reef conservation. It is intended to be a catalyst for action at a scale that has never been achieved before, bringing together all sectors to work as a global community to find solutions to a global problem.

MCS attended the launch event with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales in February, alongside many of the world’s leading coral reef experts and advocates. The Prince said: “There can be no doubt that we are at a critical tipping point, where we will either ensure or fatally compromise our ability to safeguard the world’s coral reefs and the species that will support future generations of humans and countless other species… The stakes are high and time short. We need action, not just more words.”

Gota abu ramada, Red Sea Egypt

Taking action around the world
MCS runs a number of major projects. We’ve helped increase capacity and awareness amongst Maldivians to assess and protect their own reefs in collaboration with Biosphere Expeditions, the Maldives Marine Research Centre and Reef Check. We’ve been working in the Maldives for over 12 years now, assessing the impacts of two major bleaching events and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. We established a local Reef Check Maldives NGO, and trained up six locals to undertake their own training. We’ve worked in the Turks and Caicos Islands for a number of years with the local Government Environment Department and resorts to track turtles.

Crucially, we’ve helped introduce legislation to protect turtles from over-exploitation and we hope these measures will result in a truly sustainable fishery for these important animals. As part of the Great British Oceans coalition of NGOs, which includes other big players such as Blue Marine Foundation, Pew Foundation and ZSL, we want to see our Overseas Territories better protected. In the past, we have helped establish marine protected areas (in Malaysia), fisheries management (Maldives) and codes of conduct for the aquarium industry. We’ve also undertaken international assessments in the trade in ‘curios’ both from East Africa and Asia, advising UK government departments and trading networks on tracking sustainable suppliers.

MCS has pursued activities in all of these amazing places and it’s pleasing to think that we’ve effectively facilitated fisheries legislation, inaugurated NGOs and developed management plans for entire countries, or significant parts of countries and within MPAs. This only works through collaboration, the involvement of powerful and influential local partners, citizen science and community involvement. Much of the work in these projects has been extremely cost-effective for MCS in large part due to our multi-partner approach.

The future of coral reefs: Optimism vs Pessimism
With the catastrophic expectation of losing most of our reefs by 2050 still looming over us, one feels compelled to look for reasons to be somewhat optimistic (or simply less negative). On the one hand nature seems to find ways: some reefs are showing resilience – we observe coral assemblages that are natural survivors, naturally resistant to huge storm surges, waves, currents. They are slower growing and can persist through bleaching events. Along with more resilient coral species on individual reefs, there are also places (such as northern Oman or the Red Sea) that host areas where the El Niño conditions aren’t bleaching corals.

This is the cause of some optimism. These, however, cannot compensate for the majority of corals (called Acropora) that are dying off badly during bleaching events. In terms of the underlying chemistry of acidification and likely increased rate of bleaching events, it’s hard to be optimistic for the larger area of oceanic coral reefs – reef areas synonymous with our love of the seas, such as the Great Barrier Reef, Florida or the wider Caribbean’s marine environment (although some areas of Belize and outer, more isolated, islands of Nicaragua are in better shape). This year we need to start seeing some of the coral reef resilience science being played out at operational scales in the oceans. Several researchers are breeding live corals in aquariums, to reintroduce them to the wild when populations are in most need.

At the moment, we’re still dabbling in the science of restoration of reefs. However, we need to start scaling up our restoration and reef-manipulation experiments to offer them a good start, with corals that can withstand climate change. This means massive transplantation eff orts, and vast reductions of pollutants into the coastal water systems, so corals can recruit, survive and grow. We also need to completely stop fishing for herbivorous fish that allow the reefs to outcompete algae. We have to do all we can to keep the world’s naturally thriving coral reefs as healthy as possible to withstand rising sea temperatures.

What can you do to help?
Become a volunteer – help us on our expeditions, or volunteer with organisations such as Biosphere Expeditions (where we teach Reef Check). Blue Ventures and Operation Wallacea offer longer trips embedded in communities. Use your purchasing power – only buy goods and book onto holidays that have good environmental credentials. When travelling, work out your carbon usage, and plant trees. Use less carbon in your life – coral reef scientists believe the best case scenario is that we only have one-degree climate change in our seas by 2050. Even that will increase the frequency of coral bleaching events, killing many reefs. Buy less single-use plastics and recycle. Cycle or walk to shops, work and school. It’s good for you. Keeps you happier, healthier, and calmer in decision-making.

This article was written by Jean Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist, MPA (MCS), for our spring 2018 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

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