CAN WE ACTUALLY SAVE OUR CORAL REEFS?

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Written By Renee Daly

2018 is the “International Year of the Reef,” a focus driven by the International Coral Reef Initiative. We are also in the midst of a two year project headed by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch to assess the risks and benefits of various intervention measures, while emphasising the need for “immediate and aggressive action” to save our coral reefs.

It’s been 20 years since the first global bleaching event, caused by a combination of particularly hot El Niño currents and rapid climate change, and the subsequent release of the first major awareness report. We have teams of leading scientists carrying out studies and research, dedicated climate change forums, committees, and international agreements all focusing on the effects of global warming. We have taken action the world over to varying degrees. Yet, we are still asking ourselves: “Will we really be able to save our coral reefs?”

WHERE ARE THEY AND WHAT ARE WE SAVING THEM FROM?

Our coral reefs are largely located in tropical oceans near the equator, in over 100 countries and covering an estimated 284,300 square kms. The largest coral reef is the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in Australia, which has been named one of the original seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Made up of nearly 3,000 individual reefs, almost 1,000 islands, and 400 different types of coral, it spreads across approximately 2,300km.

The second largest coral reef is located off the coast of Belize in Central America, with others found in Hawaii, and the Red Sea, to name just a few. This gives you an idea of the sheer scope, yet only 2 percent of our oceans floors are reef. It is also important to note that an estimated one-quarter of marine species depend on coral for survival, spending at least some of their life cycles in the reefs.

There are a number of factors contributing to the demise of our coral reefs, including pollution, overfishing and over-exploitation, coastal developments, disease outbreak from plastic waste pathogens, and the larger issues of global warming and coral bleaching.

WHY DO WE NEED TO SAVE THEM?

It’s estimated that at least 90 percent of the world’s corals will be dead by 2050 and Scientific Reports cites: “annual severe bleaching will impact 99 percent of coral reefs within the century.” Even National Geographic, normally known for its conservative views, has stated that “the window to save the world’s coral reefs is closing rapidly.”

The consequences of continued coral die-off reaches far beyond affecting marine life and their eco-systems to the approximate 200 million people living close to the reefs the world over.

Reefs protect coastal villages and communities from flooding, erosion, and storms. A healthy coral reef can reduce waveforce by up to 97 percent. The reefs also generate billions of dollars in tourism, as well as providing for commercial fishermen and humble locals who depend upon them for their livelihoods and survival.

With these complexities in mind, and the interdependence of marine life and systems and our reliance upon the reefs as a whole, it’s clear we must act now. Activists are gaining support from those whose fates are dependent on the survival of the coral reefs and they recognize this is the next logical leap in thinking. Working with these industries, not against them, educating them and getting their buy-in, is a key component to a more sustainable future.

Reducing additional damage from localized sources only strengthens our reefs’ chances of recovering from bleaching events and the wider effects of climate change. Healthy reefs are proving to be more resilient and they have shown the ability to bounce back from extreme damage, given the time and appropriate ongoing environment to do so.

WHAT IS ALREADY BEING DONE?

Engagement with the fishing and tourism sectors have already begun. Although they may not seem the most obvious choice, they are becoming part of the solution, armed with information and tools to make better decisions, changing the course of their actions, and lessening or completely mitigating their impact. From empowerment of reef conservation front-liners, to working with fisherman and teaching longer-term sustainable practices, the cause is gaining momentum.

The Nature Conservancy is also finding allies in even less likely places, namely the insurance industry. They have partnered with Swiss Re to expand research and cost analysis of using engineered and built infrastructures versus nature-based defences. The findings are that our infrastructure-based intervention often creates more problems and further weakens natural habitats, so more focus is now going towards protection and restoration of critical nature-based defences. The next step, still in its early stages, is to promote this within communities, to spread awareness and understanding, and hopefully to assist in creating new sources of funding to make this vision a reality.

The Coral Reef Watch is considering a range of other solutions as part of the two year project, including genetic modification of corals and geo-engineering of the atmosphere in an effort to cool the reefs. The planet’s plastic problem also weighs in here, both from an infection perspective and that of choking the coral, and blocking the vital oxygen and sunlight needed for its survival. Thankfully, we are in a time of increasing awareness in regard to plastic and its effects on the reefs, as well as the numerous other environmental issues it inflicts upon Mother Earth, humanity, and the animal kingdom. Countries and communities all around the world are banning various plastic products and the movement is gaining momentum every day.

WHAT MORE CAN WE DO?

While all of these initiatives are highly valuable, Science magazine reports that “the only sure way to preserve the world’s coral reefs is to take drastic action to reverse global warming.” This stand is the conclusion of analysis of three major die-offs on the Great Barrier Reef, with one of them in 2016— the worst on record, harming at least 85 percent of the 2,300km stretch of reef.

Australia’s most recent GBR rescue plan and funding proposal, released in early 2018, was dismissed by environmentalists as “insufficient,” because it was  deemed to have not addressed the most pressing issue when it comes to coral bleaching and the reefs demise, that is to say, the contribution of fossil fuels towards climate change.

“Rather than engaging in piecemeal exercises that ignore the biggest threat to the reef, Malcolm Turnbull should place the interests of all Australians ahead of the profits of coal barons by embracing renewable energy and saying no to new coal projects,” said Greenpeace Australia Pacific climate and energy campaigner Dr Nikola Casule. The progressive think-tank, Australia Institute reports: “The annual emissions from burning coal from Carmichael [mine] is more than  the annual emissions of Sri Lanka [and] Bangladesh… and about the same as those from Malaysia and Austria.”

The international community has been and needs to continue to hold big polluting nations, including the likes of Australia, China, and the United States accountable for their contributions to climate change, as they are some of the highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world.

Overall, the situation is dire and needs our attention now. We can indeed save our coral reefs if we act immediately, on both an individual basis and as a collective, becoming more educated about these issues, getting passionate, and being advocates for change. Help to push our major companies, governments, and capitalist regimes to revise their strategies and develop farther-reaching, planet-friendly approaches to resources and sustainability.