Re-writing the future for coral reefs

The Paris Agreement— the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—became international law on November 4. Ratifying nations from both the developed and developing world have gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. Nations are now focusing on detailed steps to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Today’s guest post, focused on the important role of coral reefs, comes from Kristen Weiss of the Center for Ocean Solutions—a partnership between Stanford Woods Insititute for the Environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” -Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

A toadstool leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.) on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Coral reefs have suffered from an intense global bleaching event that began in 2014, threatening more than 40% of the world’s corals and sparking environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen to write a controversial “Obituary for the Great Barrier Reef.” Global warming, plus last year’s El Niño event, are the key culprits in this mass bleaching.

Closer to home, reef habitats from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico have also been hard hit. Fortunately, despite this widespread devastation, there are still regions where at least some coral species have survived bleaching—in other words, where coral reefs are mostly dead, but still slightly alive. According to many coral biologists, that makes all the difference.

“In every bleaching event, there are survivors,” explains Professor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Corals sitting right next to a bleached one that are not themselves bleached. Why? Do those corals just have the right genes? The right algal symbiont? The right micro-habitat? And do they give rise to the next generation of growing corals?”

Researchers in Palumbi’s lab—along with many other marine biologists around the world—are now conducting research on coral tolerance to heat stress, hoping that the results will aid restoration efforts and give corals a leg up as their habitats get warmer. Scientists have found that even within a single coral species, individual colonies may have different ranges of tolerance to heat stress. By identifying and growing the colonies with the highest stress tolerance, they believe that they may be able to seed coral reefs with corals that are more likely to withstand future bleaching events.

As coastal communities around the world—including right here in the U.S.—become more and more vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges, saving reefs and other protective natural habitats is more important than ever.

Pacific Island leaders urge the world to join them in protecting coral reefs. Photo by Kristen Weiss

Policy action

Coral reef protection is gaining ground on the political front as well, particularly among Pacific Island nations. In June, the presidents of the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands participated in a Summit with scientific and policy experts at the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawaii, where they signed a call to action for strong and immediate engagement and partnerships in support of joint coral reef stewardship.

 “It was very encouraging to see the island leaders come together and set a bold agenda for tackling the continued decline of coral reefs and related marine ecosystems foundational to their cultures, economies and legacy for future generations,” says Professor Robert Richmond, who led the Leaders’ Summit and Symposium.

“The strong and affirmative response from the 2,500 assembled scientists, managers, educators, policy makers and stakeholders in building a solid science to policy bridge and to move from knowledge to action was the highlight of the gathering, and supports the feeling of optimism that it’s not too late.”

In the months following the summit, Pacific Island nations have been working with scientists and legal experts to create an effective plan for bridging science to policy, and increasing regional cooperation and coordination for marine resource protection. Several meetings have already been held between presidential staff and resource personnel, such as the recent U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting in Guam and Saipan, and the Pew Fellows meeting in the Netherlands. These meetings brought to light much of the new science that could readily be applied to coral reef policy development and enforcement, and made clear the need for a strong legal framework in which to apply this science.

Marine biologist Stephen Palumbi investigates coral reefs in the Pacific.

Marine scientists from around the world have offered support and assistance to Pacific Island nations in their quest to strengthen coral reef protection, including Stanford University professors Larry Crowder, Rob Dunbar and Steve Palumbi.

“The commitments made at the Leaders Summit were bold and forward-looking. As one of the scientists in the room, I was inspired by the island nation leaders’ courage, and glad to see the science and policy community committed to working together in this challenging mission,” says Crowder, Science Director for the Center for Ocean Solutions.

“We’re moving beyond the first steps now,” adds Dunbar. “The leaders of coral reef nations and their representatives to the United Nations are actively seeking advice from scientists and policy experts worldwide on ways to address the challenges posed by climate change.”

Solutions for the future

The most recent surveys of the Great Barrier Reef show that the northern third of the reef has experienced heavy mortality in the wake of the severe bleaching event. That’s definitely not good news, and a reflection of growing concern about the creeping devastation of climate change on the oceans.

A fluorescing chalice coral (Echinophyllia sp.), previously on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquiarum

The vast majority of coral scientists agree that the long-term future of coral reefs depends on solving the CO2 emissions crisis. Yet, many scientists were dismayed to read Jacobsen’s reef obituary, arguing that it engendered defeatism rather than calling people to action.

Luckily, in many regions throughout the world, people are taking action. In the Pacific Islands region, the nation of Palau has proven a leader time and again for ocean protection. Last year, the country signed into the law the National Marine Sanctuary Act that protects 80% of their exclusive economic zone from fishing, and reserves the other 20% for domestic (rather than international) fishing. Palau’s bold conservation moves, along with this year’s Leaders’ Summit and Call to Action, have galvanized regional commitments to coral reef protection and paved the way for greater collaboration into the future.

Says Palumbi, “We are at a crossroads for the ocean, a decade of choice during which we can choose to limit CO2 and thereby provide a future for the ocean life we know now. Or we can ignore this and pile up so much carbon debt—so much excess CO2 in the ocean—that we will be unable to stop widespread ecological devastation.”

 In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max made a big pill that was hard to swallow, but it brought his patient stumbling back to life. Controlling carbon emissions is our big pill. And luckily, corals are not yet completely dead.

Marine scientists and Pacific Island governments are demonstrating the strength of science-policy partnerships and creating a model for future collaborations to protect and restore reefs impacted by current and future climate change.

“We face serious challenges,” Crowder acknowledges, “but we choose optimism to secure a future for coral reefs and the people who depend upon them.”

Learn more about Climate Action for the Ocean.

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