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Global Ideas

Experts call for increased efforts to save coral reefs

The survival of coral reefs, the richest ecosystems in the ocean, depends both on local communities acting to prevent degradation and the international community altering its behavior.

Underwater coral reefs in Papua New Guinea

Coral reefs form some of the most diverse eco-systems in the world

Coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on the planet. They cover less than 0.2 percent of the ocean floor but harbor almost a quarter of all marine species. They're also a key source of food, income and coastal protection for around 500 million people worldwide.

But the reefs are increasingly at risk. A 2008 study by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network said that a fifth of the world's coral reefs have died or been destroyed.

Corals in Papua New Guinea

The coral reefs off Papua New Guinea are still largely intact

However the situation isn't without hope. In Papua New Guinea, home to 76 percent of the world's coral species and 600 types of fish, most reefs are still considered intact and functional.

Widely considered a global epicenter of marine biodiversity, the country is part of the so-called Coral Triangle - an area that includes the tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands.

"Coral reef systems in Papua New Guinea are still in their pristine condition, therefore it is not too late to save and protect them," local marine biologist Noel Wangunu said.

"It is now important that coral reefs are given some protection so that they build up their resilience to withstand impacts."

Extreme heat bleaches coral

The biggest risk comes from rising temperatures, with potentially significant impacts on food security and livelihoods in vulnerable coastal communities. Coral reefs are the foundation not only of important fishing industries but also of tourist economies.

The effects of climate change are felt more directly in the oceans than on land, even if these impacts are less visible. This year's extreme heat is putting the world's coral reefs under severe stress.

"(Global warming) impacts on coral reefs through ocean acidification and increased sea surface temperatures, driving massive coral bleaching effects," Wangunu said.

But the more immediate causes of coral reef degradation are brought about by local economies and human-driven activities including coastal development, deforestation and unrestricted tourism.

huts on stilts in Papua New Guinea

Human-driven activities are largely to blame for the loss of corals

"Overfishing is a significant threat to reef systems in the Pacific," Nicola Barnard, acting director of the International Coral Reef Action Network, said.

"Watershed pollution also affects the region, largely as a result of forest clearance, erosion and inland mining, which is a source of sediments and pollution into reef systems which can smother corals in the near shore. Moreover, urbanization has led to direct clearance of mangroves and has had indirect impacts from solid waste and sewage dumping."

Raising awareness

Experts agree that raising community awareness is the key to conserving corals.

"The majority of Papua New Guineans are yet to fully understand the threats facing the oceans and its consequences on biological diversity," Wanganu said.

"Many coastal societies use the sea as a 'supermarket' to support their daily livelihood. There is general understanding of the shortage of commercially viable species and the declining biodiversity, but they lack the ability to piece together all these changes and develop management strategies to address these."

Fisherman fishing under water in Papua New Guinea

Coastal communities use the sea as a "supermarket"

The survival of the coral reefs depends on the local population learning how to balance its economic needs while respecting the environment.

Experts say that conservation concepts need to be better explained to local communities in terms of how they will benefit from their resources. And involving local communities in any effort to conserve the marine ecosystems is just as important.

“There is very little in the way of a traditional conservation ethic anywhere in Melanesia (a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean)," Simon Foale from the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said.

"In the modern context of rapidly burgeoning populations and markets, there is a need for good science communication about the impacts of heavy fishing on population dynamics of reef fisheries which, together with the very rich local knowledge that is present in many communities, can help people come up with their own management solutions."

Global solution needed

While coral-rich countries such as Papua New Guinea explore local solutions to preserve its natural wealth, experts point out that a global approach is the only way to ultimately win the fight to save corals.

The protection of coral reefs and the biodiversity they harbor are now part of international negotiations on curbing climate change.

Last year at a meeting in Denmark organized by the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment (Globe), researchers said that most coral reefs may not survive even if tough regulations on greenhouse gases are put in place.

Some experts point out that human behavior too needs to change if the vulnerable ecosystems are to be saved.

"The most important thing we can do for coral reefs is reduce our CO2 emissions,” Stephanie Wear, director of coral reef conservation at the Nature Conservancy, an NGO supporting the Papua New Guinea government's effort to conserve biodiversity, said.

“The global community takes its toll. For example: the choices we make in seafood impact coral reefs. Avoiding coral reef fish on the menu is something that any person can do no matter where they are in the world."

Author: Jane Paulick
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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