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The calls from scientists were clear at the recent UN COP26 Climate Change Conference – global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is urgently needed to ensure a future for coral reefs.
Coral reefs host nearly 25% of marine species on our planet and provide numerous benefits to coastal communities. Keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees is crucial to keep reefs and associated species alive. But, even if warming is limited to 1.5 degrees, there are still expected losses of 70-90% of coral reefs globally.
A new approach that combines economic theory with rigorous climate modelling has given new hope by identifying 50 reefs globally that are less exposed to climate change and have the ‘least risk of failure’ in investment finance terms. These 50 reefs are now the foundation of many large conservation efforts, including the WWF’s Coral Reef Rescue Initiative, which is working across seven countries that host these climate refugia reefs to help build resilient reefs and resilient communities.
Our recently published study in Conservation Biology, led by Dr. Caitie Kuempel from the University of Queensland, took a deeper dive into the human pressures across these 50 reefs and the potential ability of countries to manage these pressures. We used a global dataset of human impacts on the marine environment spanning climate (e.g., sea surface temperature), marine-based (e.g., fishing) and land-based (e.g., fertilisers) pressures. We then looked at common approaches to managing these pressures across countries, such as marine protected areas and climate policies, to identify mismatches between levels of impact and potential management.
We found that climate contributed the most to human pressures across all 50 reefs and that there is still a continued need to manage and adapt to climate pressures. This is especially true because there is so much uncertainty about how climate change interacts with other pressures. Although the 50 reefs are termed as being less exposed to climate impacts, our findings highlight that coral reef climate refugia shouldn’t be mistaken to have climate immunity. It is still really important to focus on climate efforts in these areas.
Our work also identified areas with high marine impacts relative to land impacts and vice versa – which can help determine where local actions can best be targeted. Areas with high marine impacts can focus on managing pressures such as fishing and invasive species, whereas places with both high marine and land impacts will require a much more integrated approach across the land and sea. The study also found countries that have high impacts but low management potential, which may be areas to focus on bolstering policy efforts. However, generally, we found that there were no strong relationships between levels of impact and management potential.
To best manage these reefs we need to understand the main threats contributing to their decline, what actions are being taken, and how effective those actions are for mitigating impacts. Many studies focus on threats, but linking management actions with threats gives us a much better picture of gaps and actions we can invest in to protect the future of reefs in the face of climate change.
The findings of our study will help organisations like WWF develop strategies for on-the-ground management and policies in these areas, in collaboration with local communities and partners.
Researchers from the University of Queensland, University of British Columbia, Griffith University, Boston University, and the World Wildlife Fund contributed to this study.
You can follow Alyssa Giffen here: @AlyssaGiffin
You can follow Dr Caitie Kuempel on Twitter here: @cdkuempel
You can follow the Coral Reef Rescue Initiative here: @CoralRescue