Healthy coral reefs provide a living for about 275 million people – and ¾ of the world’s coral reefs are at risk due to factors such as overfishing, pollution and climate change.
According to studies made and compiled over the last 3 years by Reefs at Risk Revisited, the biggest threat is exploitative fishing. Another concern is that in 20 years’ time, most reefs will also be feeling the impact of climate change.
The report is compiled by a group of more than 20 research and conservation organisations, led by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington DC, in the hopes sending a wake up call for policymakers, business leaders, ocean managers, and others about the urgent need for greater protection for coral reefs.
Local and global threats, are already having significant impacts on coral reefs, putting the future of these beautiful and valuable ecosystems at risk.
The upside is that there are measures that can be taken to protect at least some. One variable that must be changed in this equation is the way fishermen make use of the reefs. Half of those around the world are threatened by methods ranging from simply catching more than nature can replace to the use of extremely damaging fishing methods such as dynamite fishing to stun or kill them - which also blasts coral formations to smithereens. Educating those in this particular industry of less abrasive and acquisitive methods for fishing would help preserve the balance of the reefs.
Other major threats are pollution carried in rivers, coastal development, and climate change.
If climate projections turn into reality, then by 2030 roughly half of the world's reefs will experience bleaching in most years - rising to 95% during the 2050s. Coral polyps - the tiny reef-building creatures - live in partnership with algae that provide nutrition and give corals their colour. When the water gets too hot, the algae are expelled and the coral turns white. Although reefs can recover, the more often it happens, the more likely they are simply to die. In addition, the slow decrease in the pH of seawater as it absorbs more carbon dioxide - usually known as ocean acidification - will compromise coral's capacity to form the hard structures it needs.
Regionally, Southeast Asia is the worst affected region, with 95% of reefs on the threatened list. But in terms of the impact on human society, threat is only part of the equation; societies most affected by reef degradation would be those where the threats are high, where a big proportion of the population depends on reefs for their livelihood, and where people's capacity to adapt is low. Combining these criteria, the countries highest on the risk register are Comoros, Fiji, Haiti, Indonesia, Kiribati, Philippines, Tanzania and Vanuatu.
Once again, let us remember that hope springs eternal. Reefs are resilient; and by reducing the local pressures, we can help buy time to find solutions to global threats that can preserve reefs for future generations.
Research has shown for example, that allowing a diversity of life to flourish on a reef keeps it healthy and more resistant to rising water temperatures. Protecting important regions of sea would also be one obvious strategy.
On the other hand, circumstances have shown that more than 2,500 protected areas of reef, researchers concluded that even though over a quarter of the world's coral is nominally protected, only one-sixth of those areas offer good protection.
Nevertheless there remains to be real world examples, studies and further research made that have proven solutions – real world examples whereby people have succeeded in turning things around. If we don’t learn from these successes now while there is still time and resource, we may end up 5 decades into the future with most of our beautiful reefs replaces by eroding limestone, overgrown with algae and grazed merely by a variety of fish.