Sparks of hope — why the least exposed coral reefs will determine the future

Carol Phua, WWF Coral Reef Rescue Initiative, and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, University of Queensland, share some hopeful reasons to celebrate World Oceans Day.

© Tom Vierus / WWF-US

June 8 marks World Oceans Day. Given the unusual circumstances the whole world is facing, it’s easy to understand why celebrating anything would be the last thing on anyone’s mind right now. Let’s be honest, from forest fires to coral bleaching, illegal wildlife trade to global pandemics, the past few months alone have been brutal. Our planet, it seems, has been beset with a string of challenges that are enough to dampen even the strongest spirits. And we’re only halfway through 2020!

It’s easy to be dismayed, but you know what? There are also sparks of hope that tell a different story if we act to protect them. They tell us the fight isn’t over by any measure.

As we fittingly focus our attention on our majestic ocean on World Oceans Day, we’re reminded of wildlife that manages to thrive despite the odds. Fragile yet resilient ecosystems that sustain life in our ocean amidst growing pressure: coral reefs.

Vital and vulnerable
Coral reefs contain the habitat for over a million species. They are still among the most beautiful places on the planet.

But, make no mistake, coral reefs are vulnerable, too. In fact, many of them are dying. In the last 30 years, we have lost almost 50% of the corals that live throughout the tropics.

Coral reefs are in serious trouble from pollution stemming from human activities as well as climate change. Multiple lines of evidence conclude that if the average global temperature increases by 1.5°C, 70%-90% of today’s tropical coral reefs will be lost by the end of the century. At 2°C or above, less than 1% of today’s coral reefs will be left.

The loss of the corals that build reefs will have devastating impacts on ocean life. Coral reefs are essential to the planet and people. They cover around 0.1% of the ocean floor, but are home to almost 25% of all known marine species. One in every four fish species live in or around a coral reef.

They are essential to at least 500 million people. Hundreds of millions of people rely on coral reefs for essential nutrition, livelihoods, protection from life-threatening storms, crucial economic opportunity, and cultural traditions.

It’s simple. If we lose the corals, we lose the reefs. If we lose the reefs, we lose the fish and the coastal protection. Lose those and you have millions of people facing poverty and degraded resources.

Resilient reefs
The good news is that there are solutions. While climate change continues to destroy coral reefs, there are some that are under less pressure. Not all corals are as exposed to climate change. Some areas may not be warming as quickly as the average. And it is these places that are so important to the regeneration of coral reefs under a stabilised climate.

There’s no question — we must address planetary temperature so that it stabilizes at or as close as possible to 1.5°C above the preindustrial period. This means bringing the emissions of greenhouse gases like CO2 to zero by mid-century. While we do that, we need to also seek out where conditions are not changing as quickly. For example, there are locations where up-welling or currents mix cooler water into the surface ocean and hence they don’t heat as quickly.

A recent global analysis has revealed that some reefs are less vulnerable to climate change impacts. Almost 70% of these climate-resilient coral reefs are found in just seven countries: Indonesia, Philippines, Cuba, Fiji, Tanzania, Solomon Islands, and Madagascar. Linked by ocean currents, these reefs are also important as a source of coral larvae and fish. Taken together, these reefs would have a high probability of surviving climate change (if restricted to well below 2°C) while also being able to seed other reefs.

The benefit is a set of reefs that we protect that are the ‘sparks of hope’ from which tomorrow’s reefs will ignite!

Challenged communities
While blessed with resilient reefs, these developing countries also host communities that are facing a number of challenges including poverty, weak governance systems, and a lack of resources, access to finance and alternative economic opportunities. These pose real and major barriers for reef-dependent communities to develop sustainably, while conserving their natural resources, more so without assistance or investment from the broader global community. They need our support, and we need theirs.

© Jürgen Freund / WWF

To help reduce or remove these barriers and keep resilient coral reefs alive, the Coral Reef Rescue Initiative was established by a group of coral reef conservation and development organizations. Led by WWF, this consortium includes the Wildlife Conservation Society, Rare, CARE International, Blue Ventures, Vulcan Inc., and the University of Queensland. By combining knowledge and expertise, building on tried-and-tested interventions as well as the latest science and emerging innovations, the partners will work with local governments and communities to develop integrated solutions that can be widely replicated and scaled up.

Our ambition is to safeguard the regeneration potential of coral reefs globally through improved protection and management of selected seascapes and ensure that the millions of reef-dependent people benefit from resilient reefs for their food security and livelihoods through diversified skills and economic opportunities.

This means empowered communities playing a crucial role in protecting their coral reefs and coastal resources. And this means that people and nature will continue to thrive in a rapidly changing climate — and our ocean will have coral reefs for future regenerations.

Like the sparks of hope that they are, these reefs can bring life to our troubled ocean, helping other reefs to hang on and eventually bounce back. They’re like the many generous people we’ve seen around the world who’ve stepped up beyond the call of duty to help others in need during this tough period. And we certainly have much to learn from these refuges of resilience because like them, we too work best when we’re together.

Hope may seem like a distant phenomenon and that looking for inspiration is futile these days. However, if you look hard enough, there are still many ample reasons to stay optimistic. And in some cases, we just need to look underwater.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

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