The year 2018 will be remembered for many reasons: North and South Korea side-by-side at the Winter Olympics; a UK royal wedding; the centenary of the armistice. But did you know that it’s the year of coral reefs?
The International Year of the Reef
Indeed: the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) has designated 2018 the third International Year of the Reef (IYOR). The first IYOR, in 1997, was held in response to growing threats to coral reefs and associated ecosystems.
A decade later, the second IYOR opened with an admission that more progress was urgently needed. In fact, the most important development was the discovery of a new threat to reefs: ocean acidification.
Both of these events helped raise global awareness of the need to protect coral reefs, and stimulated valuable academic research into the causes of their decline. But the fact that such awareness-raising effort is needed two decades later shows we still have far to go to ensure the future of these ecosystems.
Why are coral reefs so important?
Coral reefs are some of our most diverse ecosystems. Occupying only 0.1% of the world’s ocean surface, they are home to a quarter of all marine life. So damage to coral reefs has a disproportionate impact on biodiversity in general.
But reefs also protect humans. Apart from their economic value to local populations, reefs act as natural barriers against cyclones and rising seas. In other words, they are an invaluable asset for communities at risk from climate change.
And according to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), reef organisms are used in developing a range of medical treatments.
Reefs under threat
It is deeply shocking to think that in 30 years we have lost half of the world’s coral reefs. Although resilient in the face of temporary shocks, such as cyclones, reefs cannot withstand chronic pressures caused by human activity. Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, has said that 2018 is “a make or break year for the world’s coral reefs.”
These pressures include:
- Overfishing and intensive tourism;
- Climate change — rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification;
- Chemical and waste water run-off from coastal settlements and industry;
- Plastic pollution — plastic debris starves corals of oxygen and light, and releases infectious toxins. Last year the Marine Pollution Bulletin warned that corals mistake micro-plastics for food — one reason why this year’s World Environment Day theme is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution.’
What is being done — and how you can help
In the third IYOR, there are heartening signs that governments, environmental organisations and NGOs are serious about reversing the trend of decline. For example, in January Fiji designated large sections of its Great See Reef as a conservation site.
Many experts believe that reef survival will depend on the health of next-generation corals. In recent years, conservationists in Florida has created the largest network of coral nurseries in the world. Here, endangered coral species are nurtured on ‘trees’ anchored to the ground. The aim is to promote rapid growth and then transplant these specimens into struggling reefs. These reef restoration sites are a small but important step in the fight against climate change.
Environmental leaders maintain that the accelerated pace of coral loss makes it more important than ever to find local solutions. There is only so much that can be achieved by outside experts reacting to degradation — direct preventative solutions must be rooted in actions that local communities can take themselves. These include some ambitious technological fixes — recirculating cooler deep ocean water to counter warming; floating canopies to block out the sunlight that causes bleaching; adding lime to neutralise acidic oceans — which will only be implemented when local communities are made aware of the risks, feel involved in finding solutions, and cooperate closely with environmental experts.
In the long run, there is talk of editing coral DNA to increase its resilience — and, of course, transitioning to a low-emissions economy. But for now, volunteer labour is essential — coral restoration programs need manpower to educate and engage local communities, and scale up what remains an innovative but small-scale remedy.
Ethical volunteers can have a positive impact by: raising public awareness of the threats to coral reefs; taking part in projects to increase community involvement in conservation projects; and monitoring and researching the efficacy of steps taken so far. Clearly, evidence-gathering is a priority for the international community, as shown by the recent launch of a major new report on Pacific coral reefs by UN Environment.
Several Working Abroad projects involve reef monitoring, coral farming and restoration work — click here to find out more about how you can make a difference.
– By WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Sam Burt