How to Save the World’s Coral Reefs

Tales of environmental degradation are sadly becoming more common in today’s media coverage, and perhaps the most dire stories come from the oceans.

Threats such as warming seas, acidification, deforestation, coastal development and overfishing increasingly threaten the world’s corals reefs. Some experts have even predicted an especially attention-grabbing Doomsday scenario: the loss of all reefs due to climate-induced drivers by 2050.

However, empirical data from around the world tells a different story. While heat stress can cause mass mortality of reefs, well-managed reefs can recover and coral organisms themselves have even demonstrated the ability to adapt. While acidification provides a looming threat, some evidence suggests that healthy reefs may even alter the local chemistry of their surrounding waters to ensure proper pH for calcification.

Fortunately, the future of coral reefs can be ensured at least in part by sound management decisions. For instance, many scientists believe local nutrient loading plays an important role in driving ocean acidification. Recent studies have also identified the protection of upland forests and coastal vegetation as critical for the protection of marine ecosystems. Terrestrial ecosystems likewise serve as buffers against large storm events.

Overfishing, however, continues to threaten reefs everywhere and in fact remains the single ubiquitous driver of coral-reef loss today. But overfishing is also a practice that it is within our control to reverse and manage. While it’s true that the coral-reef crisis is global, taking action on a local level can curtail much of the damage.

Given the ubiquity of overfishing, two simple strategies should be widely pursued.

The first is to continue the rapid expansion of Marine Protected Areas, where fish biomass can easily exceed 1,000 kg/ha. However, because 73 percent of the world’s reefs today sit outside of formal protected areas, it is —> Read More