Recently I was in Jamaica attending the Coral Lifeline workshop organized by the Centre of Marine Sciences from the University of the West Indies – I learned a lot including that coral reefs are critical!:
- These tropical rain forests of the marine world support 25% of fish species but cover only 0.2% of the world surface.
- Reef fish are economically important and sustain about half a billion people.
- Coral reefs are keys for tourism – for snorkelers and divers but also because reefs protect shorelines by calming wave action.
- A healthy reef can reduce wave energy by 97%, protecting sea grass beds, mangroves, and beaches.
- Reefs create the space for other habitats and function as “green infrastructure” protecting shorelines – and providing US$30 billion of annual benefits to tourism, coastal protection, ports, homes, fisheries, and biodiversity.
Unfortunately, reefs are highly threatened – 90% of coral cover has been lost in the Caribbean in the last 50 years. Threats include trampling, collecting, overfishing, and anchor damage. Corals are lost because algae, fed by nutrients from sewage and fertilizers, take over. Sediments cover corals and starve them of light. Changes to water quality are driven by construction, housing, hotels, and agriculture. Turtles, parrot fish, and other herbivores have drastically declined and no longer graze algae. Overharvests of reef predators and invasive species like lion fish drive ecological changes in reefs. Finally, climate change and its myriad consequences: sea level rise, temperature increases, acidification, changes in precipitation distribution and intensity, intense storms, and shifts in currents are huge stresses to coral reefs.
There is some hope – management including no-take zones can lead to the recovery of reef species. National laws can ensure that construction and agriculture projects mitigate their impacts or even lead to positive consequences for coral reefs. New housing and hotels need to treat their sewage. Coral restoration is advancing– we can grow corals faster and help them establish and maintain reefs!
Stronger institutions and financial support will be key to ensure that improved management and restoration can help turn around coral reefs. We also need to find a way to pay for this work at scale. Projects that affect coral reefs must apply the mitigation hierarchy and internalize their environmental costs. In island systems, at least 50% of infrastructure is on the coast and depends on protection of coral reefs. Sandy beaches, calm anchorages, mangroves, and sea grasses need reefs to attenuate wave action. Reef restoration can cost an order of magnitude less than building sea walls; those that depend on and benefit from reefs should contribute to their management and maintenance.
Tourism is an important source of funding for reef management. Tourists themselves may be willing to contribute if they know the money will be used to support reefs. In Galapagos, tourism provides over 60% of the funding for conservation through national park entrance fees and voluntary donations. Some Galapagos tourism companies make client engagement with conservation core to their business, supporting the resource they depend on while improving customer loyalty. Forward looking “sustainable” tourism companies benefit from market differentiation, community support, staff engagement, client loyalty, improved efficiency, reduced resource dependence, while superseding regulatory requirements.
Coral reef, mangrove, and sea grass beds offer themselves for financing from carbon markets. Voluntary carbon markets are already funding approaches to mangrove and sea grass restoration. These ecosystems may contain anywhere between 3 and 20% of global carbon and this mechanism could help bring restoration to scale. Financing can also be innovative – drivers pay US$25 a year for Florida number plates with “protect our reefs” logos raising millions for coral reef restoration.
If financing can be bought to scale, reefs can be restored. A model for committing to scale is the Bonn Challenge – a coalition of key partners to restore 350 million hectares of forest habitats by 2030. A comparable reef challenge would be to restore 2.5 million hectares of coral reef –10% of global coral reefs or all the reefs in the Caribbean – by 2030. What do you think?