Tag Archives: Coral Reef

Reefs at Risk Report, Revisited: A Wakeup Call to Protect Coral

Coral Reef, Strait Islands, Australia

By Robert Lalasz, Nature Conservancy, An Interview with Mark Spalding, Conservancy marine scientist

The new Reefs at Risk Revisited report is out, 13 years after the original Reefs at Risk, which was the first global assessment of the threats to Earth’s coral reefs and painted an alarming picture of their future. Today’s edition is even less rosy: It reports that 75% of the planet’s reefs are threatened, not just by unsustainable fishing practices and development but also by the effects of climate change.

Amazingly, Mark Spalding, Conservancy marine scientist and a co-author for both editions, is still optimistic we can save coral reefs. I asked him why and to tell us what’s in the new report.

Amazingly, Mark Spalding, Conservancy marine scientist and a co-author for both editions, is still optimistic we can save coral reefs. I asked him why and to tell us what’s in the new report.

You were part of the first Reefs at Risk report, published more than a decade ago. What’s changed? Are things that much worse for coral reefs now, and why?

Mark Spalding : The 1998 report was a wakeup call. It was the first reliable assessment of the scale of the problems facing reefs, and we found those problems, such as unsustainable fishing, coastal development, pollution and sediments sweeping off the land, were truly global and piling up to create huge challenges.

Our findings spurred vast efforts that spent hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with these problems. But while I’d love to tell you we’ve turned things around over the last decade, we haven’t. In fact, there’s been a 30% increase in the area of threatened reefs. Oceans have warmed because of climate change, and that’s caused devastating coral bleaching in many areas.

It would be wrong to talk about failure, though. Reefs would be in much worse condition in many places if we hadn’t done what we’ve done. There are now literally thousands of examples of good reef management worldwide, and of how to turn coral reefs around. We need to pick up these examples and see them as a tool-kit, something we can turn into standard management practice across the globe. For peoples’ sake.

The report says 75% of the world’s reefs are threatened. What does “threatened” mean, exactly, are they on the verge of disappearing, or no longer functioning?

Mark Spalding : A bit of both. Some of our “threatened” reefs are to all intents and purposes lost, while others on the map still appear to be in good health. But most of that 75% are degraded to some degree: fewer fish, fewer corals, banks of seaweed smothering the sea floor.

Reefs at Risk isn’t a measure of conditions in the water, it’s a scientific best estimate of how things could affect reefs. In some cases, these threats are like shadows, waiting in the wings; elsewhere, they have begun to tip the balance. And as these reefs decline, coastal people start to lose out too, from declines in fishing, failing tourism revenues, or weakening protection against storms by the ramparts of living reef.

If you had to pick one threat that’s gotten dramatically worse over the last 10 years, which would it be?

Mark Spalding: Coral bleaching, without a doubt. Bleaching is a stress response: when the water gets just a bit too warm, the corals pale to a bleached white and lose the important algae that normally live inside their bodies. Bleaching can kill corals over vast areas in extreme cases.

We knew bleaching was a threat as we worked on the last study, but no reef scientist had predicted the scale of the problem. It has just come on so fast, so strong, it’s hammered many reefs, and left other corals more susceptible to disease or other impacts.

Recent bleaching has increased the percentage of threatened reefs from 61% to 75%. Future projections of bleaching’s effects are even scarier. Until we get global change and carbon emissions under control, the threats from coral bleaching — and ocean acidification, as the ocean absorbs more CO2, will continue and accelerate.

Let’s do a thought experiment: Coral reefs have vanished overnight. What are the results? What do we lose? Who suffers? How would it affect the developed world?

Mark Spalding : First off, the 275 million people who live near coral reefs would be devastated. There are 150,000 km of worldwide coastline sheltered behind reefs, which provide storm and wave protection. And these aren’t just people on remote islands, while coral reefs provide critical food and shelter for villages and farms, they’re also critical to the functioning of countless towns, businesses and even cities from Miami to Manila. There are entire nations built from coral reefs, whose land surface is nothing more than the accumulated remains of corals shaped into islands by storms and currents. So all that would go away.

Healthy coral reefs provide a living for about 275 million people, with many more dependent on them. Photo Source: National Geographic

But the ramifications are so much bigger than the local. Tourism, for one: Reef tourism is a massive industry, bringing international travellers to 100 coral reef nations around the world, and providing one-third of all export earnings to around 20 of these countries. And there are the vicarious benefits from the reefs’ supplies, from exotic food to aquarium fishes.
Equally important are the potent chemicals of the reefs and their medicinal uses and potential. Like rainforests, coral reefs host a bewildering diversity of plants and animals. In systems this diverse, the struggle for survival leads many species to develop complex adaptations, from skeletal structures to poisons and venoms. There might be 1 million different animal species on the world’s reefs, and we have only just begun to look at them. But they’ve already yielded active compounds with considerable promise for the treatment of certain cancers, HIV and malaria.

It’s frightening to think of coral reefs disappearing. The flip side: Give reefs a chance and the payback to people could be vast, and could continue in perpetuity.

The report calls for increased protection of coral reefs, but 27% of the world’s reefs are already inside marine protected areas (MPAs), and you write those aren’t completely effective. How do we increase the effectiveness of existing MPAs for reefs as well as their coverage?

Mark Spalding : It’s true. We found that only 6% of reefs were in fully effective MPAs, sites that allow fish and other organisms to thrive without any significant human impact. And quite a lot of those effective sites are very remote from the threats.

We know that MPAs are good for reefs. We also know that, as fish stocks recover in MPAs, they allow increased catches for fishers and better diving for tourists. So we need more MPAs close to people, precisely in the places that the threats are highest.

But these aren’t easy fixes, there is competition for use in these places, and some will resist any efforts to restrict or control fishing or other impacts. The Conservancy has been working around the world with fishers as well as with governments to design protected areas, and, indeed, comprehensive ocean zoning, to lead to benefits for all. Success breeds success in these matters, and the best emissaries for MPAs are their beneficiaries. Marine conservationists should be using fishers from successful locations to spread the word to others.

Given the dramatic decline in the condition of reefs since the last Reefs at Risk appeared, why should we be optimistic that we can avoid widespread disaster for coral reefs?

Mark Spalding : It would be foolish to simply wear a happy smile and pretend “all shall be well”, this report clearly points to a very sobering reality. But the report is also filled with success stories, everything from inspiring community leaders and well-managed local areas through to large-scale marine parks and international agreements such as the Micronesia Challenge. We can turn things around. We can manage reefs for survival, or even for rapid recovery. And in so doing, we can strengthen our coastlines and feed more hungry mouths.

Climate change hangs over such optimism, though, our projections suggest that reefs may be defenseless against its worst ravages. But we can certainly buy ourselves time. Some reefs have shown remarkable resilience and a great ability to bounce back from bleaching impacts to date, so if we can persuade the global community to act on climate change soon there’s certainly hope.

There are more than 60 recommendations in this new report for policymakers, scientists, industry. What can ordinary people do to help coral reefs? Anything?

Photo Source: National Geographic

Mark Spalding : Individuals have a critical part to play. If you live near a reef, get involved. Help local communities and organizations with reef conservation and lobby leaders for better management. Fish with due caution and be careful not to drive overfishing when you buy fish from others.

And even if you live far from reefs, you can help, too. Do you holiday in reef areas, or know people who do? Think about where you stay and don’t be afraid to ask questions, choose hotels and restaurants that do not pollute and that make a positive contribution to the environment. Support NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, which are making a real difference to coral reef conservation on the ground. Reduce your own personal carbon footprint, too, this step is urgent and, while it won’t be enough, it sends a powerful message. Finally, tell others what you are doing and encourage them to do the same.

Original Article

Coral reefs heading for fishing and climate crisis, BBC

The Last Of The Sea Nomads, Destroying The Reefs That Sustain Them, in Coastal Care

Acid Oceans Demand Greater Reef Care

Coral Reef
Tropical coral reefs are under pressure from a suite of global and local stressors. Safeguarding coral reefs in the 21st century will require urgent solutions to the global carbon problem as well as strong management of local disturbances. Photo Source: Jeff Maynard

Excerpt from the Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies

The more humanity acidifies and warms the world’s oceans with carbon emissions, the harder we will have to work to save our coral reefs.

That’s the blunt message from a major new study by an international scientific team, which finds that ocean acidification and global warming will combine with local impacts like overfishing and nutrient runoff to weaken the world’s coral reefs right when they are struggling to survive.

Modelling by a team led by Dr Ken Anthony of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and The University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute has found that reefs already overfished and affected by land runoff are likely to be more vulnerable to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Their study is the first to integrate global scale processes, such as warming and acidification, with the local factors overfishing and runoff, to predict the combined impact on coral reefs.

“As CO2 levels climb to 450-500 parts per million, as they are now expected to do by 2050, how well we manage local impacts on reefs like fishing and runoff will become absolutely critical as to whether they survive as coral reefs, or are overtaken by algae that compete with corals for space on reefs,” Dr Anthony says.

Warmer conditions cause periodic mass coral deaths by bleaching, while acidifying sea water, due to CO2 dissolving out of the atmosphere, weakens the corals by interfering with their ability to form their skeletons, making them more vulnerable to impact by storms. If the corals are also affected by heavy nutrient runoff from the land, which fertilizes the algae, and overfishing of parrot fishes and others that keep the reefs clear of weed, then corals can struggle to re-establish after a setback, he explains. “In those situations, the reef can become completely overgrown by algae.”

The team’s modelling, which they say is on the conservative side, has far-reaching implications for the preservation even of well-managed reefs such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and extremely serious implications for reefs in developing countries, where most reefs are located and where reefs face high levels of stress from human activities.

“Put simply, our model indicates that the more CO2 we humans liberate, the harder it will become for coral reefs, as we know them, to survive. This means they will need all the help they can get in the way of good management to prevent their being overgrown by sea weeds,” he adds.

“Coral reefs in developing nations, where most of the world’s reefs occur and overfishing and nutrification remain key concerns, are particularly vulnerable, highlighting the need to continue to build capacity amongst reef managers and governments in areas like SE Asia,” the team warns in their report, which was recently published in the journal Global Change Biology.

“A failure to rapidly stabilize and reduce the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is likely to lead to significant loss of key (coral) framework builders such as Acropora, irrespective of the effectiveness of local management,” the scientists conclude.

“However local reef management efforts to maintain high grazing fish populations and prevent runoff of silt, fertilisers and sewage from the land will play a critical role in maintaining coral resilience while CO2 concentrations are stabilized,” they add.
The study, which is the first to quantify the relative importance of carbon emissions and local disturbances in compromising reef health, can be used to optimise future management practises of coral reefs. It makes clear that both policy changes on emissions and local management measures are required to secure a future for coral reefs.

Original Article

North Australia set to face more weather extremes, corals show

Porites Coral
A large fossil Porites coral. Photo Source: Georgia Tech

By David Fogarty, Reuters

Flood and storm-battered northern Australia is likely to suffer more frequent weather extremes, according to a study of coral cores that reveal a centuries-old climate record for the region.

Like pages in a book, corals can help scientists go back in time by revealing years that were unusually wet or dry. The annual changes or variations in weather are recorded in growth rings that can be studied by drilling and extracting long cores.

“The corals are providing another piece of evidence that maybe suggests that we are seeing some consequences already of global warming,” Janice Lough, a senior scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Queensland state, told Reuters from Townsville on Thursday.

Lough, in a study to be published in Paleoceanography, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, examined 17 coral cores taken from reefs off Queensland’s northeast coast. The rings in the cores date from the 17th century until 1981 when they were collected, yielding a 300-year climate record.

Northern Queensland typically gets most of its rain during the summer monsoon and is at the mercy of the El Nino and La Nina weather patterns that normally bring drought or floods.

The current strong La Nina is blamed for record floods that have inundated large areas of Queensland in recent months, killing dozens of people, crippling coal mines, swamping thousands of homes and damaging crops.

Lough said her study found that the frequency of weather extremes seems to increase in recent centuries.

“It can be difficult to detect whether any changes are happening just because of that high natural variability,” she said, but added that the long-term record suggested some sort of change had occurred. “That tropical rainfall variability will become more extreme.”

The cores come from Porites coral domes that can grow up to 8 meters (26 feet) high and be centuries old, growing between 1 and 1.5 cms a year, she said.

In her research, Lough looked into slices of the coral under ultraviolet light to study the growth bands.

During wet years, rivers flush a lot of plant matter and a mix of compounds called humic acids into the ocean and these acids are absorbed by the coral and stored in its skeleton. Under UV light, growth bands with more humic acid show up more brightly than bands from drier years.

Lough said the coral records were another piece of the climate jigsaw, given the lack of long-term historical weather data, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere and the tropics.

“Corals are natural history books,” she added, revealing growth rates, changes through time and the amount of freshwater run-off from land.

Original Article

Read More, Excerpt from AGU

Cyclone Adds to Barrier Reef’s Flood Woes

Coral Reef
An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef, between Cairns and Townsville, Australia. Photo Source: Biology Encyclopedia

By Matt Siegel, AFP

Hammered by a monster cyclone just weeks after flooding spewed toxic waste into its pristine waters, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef could face a slow recovery due to climate change, experts warn.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi, a top-category storm, ripped through Australia’s northeast tourist coast Thursday, levelling houses and decimating crops as it hit land near the city of Cairns, gateway to the Reef.

Though it is too early to assess the extent of the damage, marine experts said the sprawling coral structure was bound to have been harmed by Yasi’s blistering 290 kilometre (180 mile) per hour winds.

“Cyclones do damage reefs,” Nick Graham, a senior research fellow at James Cook University, told AFP.

“They tend to be be particularly damaging in shallow waters, so they can break corals and kill areas of live coral, so you get a reduction of coral cover…. And that then can have a knock-on effect,” Graham said.

The world’s largest living organism, which stretches for 345,000 square kilometres (133,000 square miles) off Australia’s northeast coast, was already suffering after last month’s record flooding washed a mucky cocktail of debris, sediment, pesticides and other run-off out to sea.

Storms such as Yasi have the power to reduce reefs to rubble and wreak severe damage on living corals.

Smashed fragments have already begun washing up on Australian beaches, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, who estimate that recovery could take 10 years.

“Cyclones are regular events and do affect the coral reef ecosystem dramatically,” said the authority’s chairman Russell Reichelt.
“However, they tend to be localised to a specific area, compared to other large-scale effects such as mass coral bleaching caused by climate change.”

Cyclones are a fact of life on the reef, there were 55 between 1969 and 1997 according to a recent study, but warming and acidification of the ocean linked to climate change have both increased their frequency and left corals more vulnerable.

“What normally would have recovered in the past in many other places in the world takes a long time because the reefs are not optimal; they don’t have a lot of resilience,” said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldenburg, Director of Queensland University’s Global Change Institute.

“The second thing that is happening is that as we heat the oceans through global warming, we are increasing the frequency of mega cyclones like Yasi…. which potentially, given (the) circumstances, can have really big impacts on coral reefs, reducing their ability to bounce back.”

Coral growth has slowed markedly on the reef since 1990 and parts of it have suffered severe bleaching due to rising sea temperatures and acidity that kill its plant-like organisms, leaving just the white limestone skeleton.

Overall, both this and cyclone damage are symptoms of worsening and dangerous climate change, said John Merson, from the University of New South Wales.

“I think probably more damage is being done to the reef by the rising temperature in the ocean which is causing the cyclone, as well as the reef to be damaged,” said Merson.

“The other question is the complete lack of attention being given to the fact that we have a category five cyclone because we have climate change, yet we completely ignore this factor in the whole thing.

“The same thing, the heating of the water, is going to increase coral bleaching which will knock out the reef in the long term anyway.”

Original Article

Jamaica’s Land Reclamation and Coral reefs Damages

Historic Falmouth Port, Jamaica. Photo source: ©© Jack at Wikipedia
For the past 3 years, Royal Caribbean has been leading an initiative in collaboration with the Port Authority of Jamaica to create a brand new cruise port of call: “Historic Falmouth Jamaica”. The port is located on the North coast of Jamaica midway between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. It is currently under construction and is designed to accommodate two large ships simultaneously. Locals call the coral-ringed lagoon on the north coast of Jamaica Glistening Waters. As night falls, bioluminescent plankton light the shallows. Oyster Bay is believed to be one of only four lagoons in the world where such a spectacle occurs.


The problem-plagued Historic Falmouth Port has been plunged into a fresh round of controversy as green lobbyists are insisting that 20 hectares of coral and seagrass cover have been damaged due to the development.

At the same time, the environment advocates say the corals form a part of the material dredged from the harbour that is being used to reclaim lands in the area, as part of the $7.5-billion project…

Read Full Article, The Jamaica Observer

18 Diving Sites Closed to Save Coral Reefs, Thailand

Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care


Some of Thailand’s most popular diving sites are now off-limits to tourists: Thai officials announced on Thursday that they were restricting access to seven marine national parks for up to a year to prevent further harm to coral reefs severely damaged by a long period of elevated sea temperatures last year…

Read Full Article, The New York Times

The Bangkok Post

Sea Urchins and Overfishing Impact on Kenya Coast’s Reefs

Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care


An 18-year study of Kenya’s coral reefs by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of California at Santa Cruz has found that overfished reef systems have more sea urchins, organisms that in turn eat coral algae that build tropical reef systems…

Fishing Boat Kenya
Fishing Boat Kenya. Photo Source: Waveriders

Read Full Article, The Wildlife Conservation Society

Some Coral Reefs Less Vulnerable to Rising Sea Temperatures

Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care


New research highlighting coastal locations where coral can better withstand rising sea temperatures, a leading cause of stress to coral reefs, may guide efforts to conserve the largest living structures on Earth.

The findings hold promise for an estimated 100 million people living along the coasts of tropical developing countries whose livelihoods and welfare depend directly on coral reefs, but are currently under threat from climate change…

Read Full Article, Science Daily

Scientists Call for Protection and Better Management for Australian Reefs

Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care

By ARC, Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies, in Science Daily

Leading scientists and marine managers have called for a greater national effort to protect vital 1000-kilometre stretches of ocean bordering the middle of Australia’s eastern and western coastlines…

Read Full Article, Science Daily