Do coral reefs have a bleak future?

"Without fundamental and significant changes to the way we exist as a human society, 90 per cent of coral reefs will be in danger by 2030, and nearly all of them by 2050." Sophie Benbow, Head of Marine at Fauna & Flora International, considers the future of the world's coral reefs.

Great Barrier Reef
Sophie Benbow

Coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea, support nearly one-third of all marine species despite covering less than 0.1 per cent of the ocean floor. As well as being hugely important hotspots of marine biodiversity, coral reefs buffer shorelines from the effects of storms, and support the livelihoods of an estimated 500 million people around the world through fishing and tourism-related activities.

Despite this, coral reefs are declining at an alarming rate, not least on the Great Barrier Reef, which recently reported losses of up to 50 per cent. Threatened by overfishing and the use of destructive fishing practises such as explosives and cyanide poison, coral reefs are being destroyed twice as fast as we are losing rainforests.

Coral reefs are formed when a colony of individual coral polyps come together and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard structure. This chemical process is directly impacted by warming waters, pollution and acidification, all of which interfere with the natural accretion processes. When corals are stressed, the animals within them are released into the water and the structure bleaches, turning white and eventually weakening and crumbling away.

The survival of the world’s coral reefs is thus inextricably linked with climate change and global emissions. Simply put, at the current rate of global warming, and related increases in sea surface temperatures, the vast majority of coral reefs will die. Without fundamental and significant changes to the way we exist as a human society, 90 per cent of coral reefs will be in danger by 2030, and nearly all of them by 2050. 

Revisions to environmental policy in nations that contain coral reefs are urgently required to limit or remove anthropogenic impacts on this delicate ecosystem. Effective Marine Protected Areas which prohibit fishing activity and prevent the use of destructive fishing techniques would go some way to achieving this, and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) supports the current UK Government’s leadership of the Global Ocean Alliance, which calls for 30 per cent of the sea to be protected by 2030. Currently numbering just over 30 country signatories, this movement needs to build momentum if it is to achieve any significant and lasting impact.

Urgent and drastic commitments are required from all governments and global coalitions to limit warming to 1.5C, or we stand to lose 99 per cent of the world’s coral reefs and the associated benefits they provide. Ratification of the Paris Agreement by all nations will enable us to make significant progress towards this goal, and we can all play a part by pressuring our elected representatives to act on this issue. As we move into the delayed ocean 'super year' in 2021, there are key opportunities for progress on marine issues globally, including the protection of coral reef ecosystems.

At FFI we haven’t quite given up hope yet, from 3D printing to IVF, scientists and conservation practitioners around the world are developing innovative solutions to stem the loss of coral reefs. Pockets of resilient corals have been identified, and FFI is working to secure critical protection for reefs in particularly resilient sites such as Myanmar, Tanzania and Aceh, Indonesia.

However, with the fate of coral reefs intertwined with a warming climate, global emissions cuts are essential. I, for one, am hopeful that our current government will maintain its focus on the marine environment and seek to push the ocean agenda at the climate and CBD COPs, but without a doubt, we have a long way to go and we all have a part to play.

Sophie Benbow is Head of Marine at Fauna & Flora International