The latest news about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is not encouraging, and a slew of negative headlines tells the story: “Scientists despair at latest coral bleaching data,” says The Guardian; “Large Sections of Australia’s Great Reef Are Now Dead, Scientists Find” reports the New York Times. With news like this about the world’s most famous reef, it’s understandable for many people to conclude that saving coral reefs elsewhere is now impossible. Fortunately, this is not the case. We can still save corals. But to do so, we will need to take action and leverage an “all of the above” strategy of conservation that addresses both the local and global threats to their survival.
Tropical, reef-building corals are animals which build skeletons of calcium carbonate and have symbiotic algae that live inside them. Deep sea corals are animals as well, but they don’t have algae since there is no sunlight to take advantage of. Both types of coral create structures on the seafloor as these skeletons build up over time, forming vital ocean habitats for fish and other sea creatures. This process of reef formation is incredibly slow: once damaged, reefs can require decades or even millennia to fully recover.
On a global scale, coral reefs face threats from climate change and the warmer oceans that result. When the symbiotic algae in tropical corals leave the animal – usually due to higher water temperatures – the bleached coral begins to starve. At the same time, increased carbon emissions have also led to ocean acidification. As the ocean’s pH level drops, corals have a harder time building their skeletons.
But reefs also face destruction from localized threats. Destructive fishing gear, pollution, sedimentation, nutrient runoff and other water quality issues can all cause significant damage to corals. Deep sea corals can be demolished by bottom trawls. Cyanide fishing – used in the capture of aquarium fish – can poison reefs and the creatures that live there. And in some tropical areas, the overfishing of reef fish threatens the vitality of the broader ecosystem.
Saving coral reefs thus requires an "all of the above" approach that addresses both global and local threats; any strategy that takes action on one front while ignoring the other cannot succeed. Protecting a habitat from destructive fishing only to watch it cook in a warming ocean accomplishes little. And even if we stopped climate change and ocean acidification today, the work of one fisherman with a stick of dynamite could undo hundreds of years’ worth of coral growth in a matter of seconds.
Oceana is working to protect habitats, including coral, and has been since our founding in 2001. With the support of funders including Arcadia Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies, we have won more than 45 policy victories that protect corals, establish or expand Marine Protected Areas in key locations, end destructive bottom trawling and more. And as part of the broader environmental community’s efforts to address climate change, Oceana has successfully opposed offshore oil exploration and development. Preventing offshore oil drilling and exploration protects coral reefs from the associated risks of pollution while combating the fossil fuel industry.
Oceana’s victories have helped protect corals around the world. We improved law enforcement in the Tañon Strait in the Philippines – home to 65 percent of all the coral species in that country. In Belize, we protected the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef by ending bottom trawling in that country’s waters and fighting against offshore oil exploration. In the United States, we fought for – and won – deep sea coral habitat protections in the Atlantic. All told, we have protected more than 9,000,000 square kilometers of ocean, from the Tañon Strait in the Philippines to Gorringe Bank in Portugal to Salas y Gomez in Chile.
But much remains to be done, and we are currently planning expeditions that will guide our path forward. In Brazil, we will document the seamounts of the North Brazilian Chain and visit the recently discovered Amazon Reefs. An expedition undertaken in partnership with the Canadian government will explore the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, among other efforts, look for deep sea corals. In both countries, these expeditions will obtain new data and images – information that can then be used to advocate for the protection of these vulnerable habitats.
Coral reefs are vital to protecting ocean biodiversity. They support a wider variety of wildlife than any other marine environment. Scientists have estimated that as many as 8 million new species may remain to be discovered in these incredible habitats. These are places worth fighting for, and a comprehensive strategy can still address the global and local threats to their survival.
The bad news you’ve been reading about the Great Barrier Reef doesn’t have to be how this story ends. Instead, these headlines should serve as a call to action for us all to embrace a comprehensive strategy that can save our coral reefs.