Throughout the conservation community there are serious concerns for the future of coral reefs.

We know that the combination of local pressures such as overfishing and pollution, alongside the rapid warming and acidification of our seas is pushing coral reefs to their limits.

Without concerted global action, it is predicted that we may lose up to 90% of the world’s coral reefs in the next 30 years. As reefs are home to nearly a quarter of marine species, the major environmental and economic repercussions of this would be felt far and wide, not just for the half a billion people who depend directly on reefs for their livelihoods. Therefore this is an issue that should be on everyone’s radar.

Corals are among the first indicators of climate change. Credit: The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey
Corals are among the first indicators of climate change. Credit: The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Not all doom and gloom…

Despite the gloomy outlook, we are learning that not all reefs respond in the same way to these pressures. In much the same way that you or I might suffer differently from a common cold, the response of individual corals and species is dependent on their own sensitivity, their level of exposure to the threats, and how supportive their local environment is for growth and recovery – combined these factors are known as “resilience”. Indeed, some reefs may be more resilient than expected.

Stripping back the pressures posed by our activities, and reinstating good conditions for healthy reefs, through the better management of fishing and tourism activities for example, is important for improving reef resilience; essentially strengthening the “immune system” of this ecosystem and increasing the likelihood that coral reefs can continue to thrive in a changing climate.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Credit: Jayne Jenkins
Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Credit: Jayne Jenkins

Building reef resilience through local action

In among the stories of loss there are stories of regeneration and positive change, where committed local groups are taking great strides to care for, and protect their marine environment. Through our work in Cambodia for example, we are supporting Community Fishery Institutions in the Koh Rong archipelago to play a key role in reducing the local threats to important reef, seagrass and mangrove ecosystems within the Marine Fisheries Management Area. Early reports suggest that the areas managed by these local groups are in better shape than the surrounding seas – with higher coverage of live corals and healthier reef fish populations, including higher numbers of grazing parrotfish (known to keep algal growth in check and support reef recovery) and predatory groupers (indicative of a healthy balance of fish on the reef).

While reefs in these locally-managed areas are not immune to the stresses posed by warmer sea temperatures and have suffered coral bleaching – as seen across much of the archipelago since 2015 – the data suggests that the efforts to limit fishing impacts and maintain connections between reef, seagrass and mangrove habitats, may be aiding localised reef recovery.

But the margins are small and local efforts like this need to be further strengthened and scaled.

Fisher in Cambodia. Credit: Paul Colley
Early reports suggest that the areas managed by these local groups are in better shape than the surrounding seas. Credit: Paul Colley

A critical piece of the puzzle

Can this kind of local action really make a difference in the context of a runaway climate?

There will of course be limits to what local management can achieve, and ultimately, decisive action is needed at a national and international level to tackle climate change. In the meantime however, effective coral reef protection and management will remain a critical part of the global effort to chart a more positive future for coral reefs. Equally as important will be helping local people who rely heavily on coral reefs for food, economic, cultural and spiritual reasons, to anticipate and respond to the likely changes associated with declining reef health.

Through the 50 Reefs Initiative, work has been underway to identify tracts of coral reefs around the world that are most likely to withstand the impacts of climate change. By taking a strategic and long-term view of coral reefs in the face of a warming climate, the initiative aims to galvanise much needed investment and action to ensure that we do indeed reduce near-term threats – like fishing and pollution – in reef areas that are most likely to persist into 2050, and which may be able to replenish other degraded and damaged reef systems, thereby giving reefs a fighting chance.

Clownfish in Mabul island, Malaysia. Credit: Simon J Pierce
Clownfish in Mabul island, Malaysia. Credit: Simon J Pierce

A portfolio of 50 such coral reef areas, that constitute almost 10% of the estimated 285,000 km2 of coral reef in the world, has recently been described. This includes the reefs around Myanmar, the diverse and thriving reefs of Pemba in Tanzania and Pate in Kenya, and the recovering reefs of Aceh in Indonesia where FFI has active programmes of locally-led marine conservation action underway.

While work is still needed to interpret the findings of the assessment and incorporate on-the-ground data and experience from these priority areas, the early message reinforces our own view that, despite warming trends, addressing local reef threats is worthwhile and will help to improve the long-term conservation and persistence of coral reefs, making our work at this scale all the more pertinent.

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