To Save the World’s Coral Reefs, Bigger – and Smaller – Are Better

Coral reefs are vital marine ecosystems, but time is running out to protect them from climate change. The only way to stave off a coral catastrophe, says ‘Aulani Wilhelm of Conservation International, is to scale up marine protected areas – and fast.

Written by ‘Aulani Wilhelm Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Coral reefs are quickly disappearing. To save them, we may have to rethink ocean conservation.Ritiks/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Coral reefs are the epicenters of marine life, providing incalculable benefits and value to humanity. Climate change stands to wipe them out within our lifetime.

The crisis facing the world’s coral reefs is now so dire that a recent gathering of experts desperately called for “radical interventions” to save them. Rapidly warming waters, combined with pollution and other stressors, is fast turning reefs from Florida to Australia into underwater graveyards, the bleached skeletons of corals standing as a grim testament to a changing climate.

The trouble is, even proposed “radical” measures, including the spraying of seawater into the air to help form clouds that could temporarily cool waters, will likely not be enough at the scale we need it: Incidences of coral bleaching that once occurred occasionally are expected to happen on an annual basis, according to a recent study, pushing reefs to the very brink of survival.

Just like other animals on Earth, corals need a healthy habitat to survive. So, to protect them, we need to protect the places where they live. And marine protected areas, or MPAs – and other area-based approaches to reducing pressure from development, fishing and other impacts such as pollution – are proven to do just that.

Thankfully, when MPAs are managed well and properly funded and staffed, they are effective at allowing marine life to thrive. A recent paper by scientists at Conservation International published in the journal Nature showed that the vast majority of protected areas improved fish stocks, and those that had adequate capacity, enforcement and funding delivered almost three times the beneficial ecological effects. The rise of new technology, meanwhile, has enabled us to greatly improve the ability to monitor MPAs remotely to enforce restrictions and identify illegal use.

If the world’s coral reefs are to survive, we have to change the way we treat oceans and respond to the effects of climate change everywhere. To provide the best possible hedge against the confluence of stressors that are impacting reefs and the oceans overall, we need to be precautionary and protect as much as we can, as quickly as we can.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times draws a needless distinction between large-scale and small-scale MPAs. It’s a false choice – the reality is that we need both. For too long, ocean conservation has been focused on drawing lines around the very smallest quanta of an ocean ecosystem: a single reef, a bay, a politically significant viewshed, but omitting critical surrounding areas that affect marine life within the MPA to be effective.

Moreover, nature knows no boundaries. Marine life shifts its range in response to climatic changes – including coral, albeit more slowly. So the boundaries need to be big enough to provide protection for animals during all stages of life so they can adjust and continue to reproduce.

Also, most MPAs don’t cover the high seas, waters that lie outside national jurisdictions. Several dozen seamounts that lie in international tropical waters may support coral reef habitats, including twilight coral reefs, so called because they thrive in deep waters where little sunlight penetrates.

Many of these open-ocean coral reefs have never been explored, and because they aren’t protected by the laws of any country, they are among the most vulnerable reefs on Earth. Before we even know the importance of these reefs as habitats for critical fisheries or as outposts for rare coral species, we may lose them.

So how do we address these challenges? We can start by making protected areas bigger. Much bigger.

Large-scale marine protected areas (LSMPAs) – generally defined as marine conservation areas that are larger than 150,000 square km (58,000 square miles), about the size of the U.S. state of Georgia – offer a potential solution. Since 2000, more than 30 have been proposed or established within national waters by more than 15 countries.

Compared with smaller areas, large-scale MPAs can provide more holistic protection – protecting entire ecosystems and providing a viable approach to protecting the high seas. Given that the high seas cover more than 60 percent of the world’s oceans, it is critical that we change global policy, increase our scientific and management efforts, and strategically accelerate protection of this critical realm of the ocean. Lessons learned in large-scale MPAs that have been established in national waters provide us with the knowledge and experience we need to shape similar protections in the high seas.

These large-scale MPAs don’t preclude protection of discrete areas of highly concentrated ocean life. They are a necessary complement.

Last year, the United Nations agreed to negotiate a binding treaty on high-seas marine biodiversity, due by 2020. It’s a major step, but we can’t wait for the new treaty to be signed to take action. We must make additional investments – big and small – to protect our oceans now.

For coral reefs, there is no time to lose.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Oceans Deeply.

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