The largest study ever conducted of its kind has identified where and how to save coral reef communities in the Indo-Pacific, according to an international group of scientists from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and other conservation NGOs, government agencies, and universities. The study outlines three viable strategies that can be quickly enacted to help save coral reefs that are threatened by climate change and human impacts.
Published today in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, the study involved the efforts of more than 80 authors who surveyed coral abundance on more than 2,500 reefs across 44 countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The findings revealed that the majority of reefs had functioning coral communities with a living cover of architecturally complex species that give reefs their distinctive structure. After the damage caused by severe heat stress during the 2014-17 El Niño event, the authors found nearly 450 reefs in 22 countries across the Indo-Pacific that survived in climate ‘cool spots’ that should be prioritized for urgent protection and management.
The landmark publication also presents a conservation framework of three management strategies (protect, recover, and transform) to safeguard reef ecologies and ecosystem services into the future.
“The good news is that functioning coral reefs still exist, and our study shows that it is not too late to save them,” said WCS Conservation Scientist Dr. Emily Darling, lead author of the study and leader of WCS’s global coral reef monitoring program. “Safeguarding coral reefs into the future means protecting the world’s last functioning reefs and recovering reefs impacted by climate change. But realistically—on severely degraded reefs—coastal societies will need to find new livelihoods for the future.”
Good news on corals has become rare in the 21st Century as increasing carbon emissions and human impacts of overfishing, pollution and unsustainable development have led to predictions of a bleak future for tropical reefs and the millions of people who depend on them. The Indo-Pacific, a hotspot of coral reef biodiversity, in particular has been devastated by periods of severe heat stress and mass coral bleaching events in 1983, 1998, 2005, 2010, and most recently in the world’s longest, largest and most intense bleaching event in 2014-2017.
The study also identifies the minimum requirements to save functioning reefs. This required evaluating the impacts of 20 environmental, climatic, and human-caused stressors on reef-building corals. The authors found that higher abundances of framework corals, the species that build the backbone of coral reefs, occurred in locations with fewer climate shocks and longer recovery windows. Higher coral abundances were also found farther from coastal populations and their associated markets and agricultural impacts.