Coral reef symposium in London concludes ‘reef protection is not enough’

High reef fish biomass at a remote central Pacific coral reef island.

A report from a symposium held in London on 29 June

‘Rethinking the Future of Coral Reefs’ was the theme of a symposium at St. James’s Palace to discuss solutions to serious losses on coral reefs over the last 40 years. Dr. Carrie Manfrino, President of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute in the Cayman Islands and convener of the Symposium, commented on the results: “We want to stress the global nature of the problem of coral reef decline and how we as the scientific community must reframe our thinking on how to protect and conserve this enormously valuable asset. We recognize that what we have been doing is not working – it is time for a fresh approach,” she said.

Coral reefs are second only to the rainforests as the most biologically diverse environment on earth. They provide a home for 25% of marine life in the ocean and play a vital role in protecting coastlines from storm and hurricane damage.

The group has declared that all of the world’s coral reefs are threatened due to three main causes – climate change, over-fishing, and pollution — though there are many other reasons why they have declined.

They also agree that marine protected areas are not sufficiently protecting coral reefs. The elevated sea surface temperatures in response to the 2015-2016 El Nino led to coral bleaching in the Caribbean last summer and across the Great Barrier reef earlier this year. Corals across the Indian Ocean including in Sri Lanka, where CCMI’s Director of Research and President is currently a Fulbright Scholar, are currently bleaching and in a fragile state.

Corals turn white (bleach) in response to prolonged increases in sea surface temperature. They are white because the tiny symbiotic algae that provide their color are released as a stress response mechanism that scientists are still trying to understand. When they bleach, corals are still alive and can recover when temperatures return to normal. But if temperatures don’t return to normal within a number of weeks, coral mortality can have a devastating impact on the reef ecosystem.

“The reality is that while marine protected areas can boost the entire system’s resilience, mass mortality from coral bleaching occurs across the boundaries of protection. What is clear is that reducing direct human impacts on stressed coral reefs is required for recovery. In the Cayman Islands, at several locations on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Indian Ocean, it took between 9-12 years for corals to recover from the 1998 massive coral bleaching event”, said Manfrino.

What this implies is that human impacts need to be reduced to allow time for corals to recover but it may become more difficult for recovery if El Nino events occur more frequently as temperatures continue to rise.

Seven presentations were made at the Symposium, including some of the world’s leading scientists: Professor Terry Hughes, Professor Nick Graham, Dr. Gareth Williams, Professor Joshua Cinner, Dr. Rachel Turner and Jerker Tamelander, who covered topics including “International Policy & Reef Management” and “Drivers of Natural Variation in Coral Reef Ecosystem State”.

Dr. Gareth Williams proposed several new solutions: “We must take a two-pronged approach to managing the world’s coral reefs. We need to urgently cut greenhouse gas emissions to slow the frequency of severe coral bleaching events, while simultaneously manage reefs at a local scale to promote resilience. Local-scale action alone will not be enough; we cannot climate-proof coral reefs. However, the good news is local reef fates are likely different from regional projected fates which are determined by global climate models. This smaller scale variation in reef vulnerability means we can prioritise local-scale action. By comparing local vulnerability to current management we can identify key conservation opportunities, for example areas where supporting human adaptive capacity is essential or areas where managers can have the greatest influence on long-term reef condition and ecosystem service provision”.

Jerker Tamelander, Head of the Coral Reef Unit of the United National Protection Programme (UNEP) in his presentation, reported: “2015 saw the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 development agenda. The future of coral reefs is determined by how these agreements are implemented.” Looking ahead at the dangers posed, he went on to say: “We stand to lose a significant portion of the worlds’ coral reefs in the coming decades. It is critical that we protect reefs, to improve chances that coral reefs will adapt and continue to deliver ecosystem services in the future.”