Hopeful thoughts from our Coral Reef Conservation Heroes

December 3, 2020Dr. Helen Fox with Coral Reef Conservation Heroes

Over the past few months, we featured interviews with the four winners of International Coral Reef Society’s Coral Reef Conservation Award, Dr. Rod Salm, Dr. Nyawira Muthiga, Dr. Alan White and Ms. Sue Wells.  We conclude our series with their thoughts on their hope for the future of these precious ecosystems.

Rod Salm at Jellyfish Lake, Palau. (Photo by Rod Salm, 2010)

What don’t we know about coral reefs that we should know in order to protect them for generations to come?

Rod: We need to understand stress resilience more fully and be able to map this across the reefs of the world. This will enable us to direct conservation funding and effort to those areas with high survival prospects and ensure that they get the conservation management they need to survive. 

Sue:  We need to know what makes some coral reefs crash and die. Why are some more resilient, how fast do they come back, under what situations do they come back? We need to keep up with the latest science because, for example, nobody was thinking about climate change at the beginning of my career. It was known that corals bleached if you put them under stress, but we didn't see that as being a critical thing. Everybody thought the bleaching ones were exceptions.

Sue Wells in Mauritius (Photo by Sue Wells, 2020)

What gives you hope for the future of coral reefs?

Rod: There have been huge increases in awareness with genuine public concern about the plight of coral reefs. I have seen advocacy with and among nations along with scientific capacity to provide the knowledge and expertise to protect and manage coral reefs. It will take concerted people power to change the politician’s perspectives and we are heading in that direction.

We are finding out more and more about adaptive responses in corals and seeing these manifested in the field. Corals are finding novel ways to survive heat stress and bleaching events. Eradication of corals altogether is looking more preventable and within reach.

Nyawira: Developments at the regional and local levels that are increasing attention on coral reefs and addressing challenges for marine conservation.  A few examples that I have been involved with include:

  1. An improved understanding and action by governments of the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) about the importance of marine ecosystems for their economies and people's livelihoods. This has led to the incorporation of the marine and coastal agenda into national and regional processes such as the Coral Reef Task Force and national coral reef working groups;  

  2. Improved knowledge about the benefits of conservation measures such as MPAs and fisheries practices has contributed to countries agreeing to increase the coverage of MPAs through the Convention on Biological  Diversity (CBD), up to 30% in some countries. In addition, countries such as Kenya that have a long history of MPAs are putting more effort into better managing them.

  3. There is an increased interest in empowering local communities for marine conservation. For instance, the establishment of  Beach Management Units (BMUs) has enabled fishing communities to have a stronger role in the management of traditional landing beaches and fishing grounds.

Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security Regional Exchange for MPAs; the six-country body formulated and approved the Coral Triangle MPA System Framework and Action Plan launched in 2014 across the region (Photo by Alan White, 2013)

Alan: In Southeast Asian countries many coral reefs within well managed MPAs are displaying increasing fish biomass, stable coral cover, and generally excellent diversity of reef related organisms despite the incidents of coral bleaching and numerous stories of reef degradation around the world. 

We collectively have enough experience and knowledge from the last 40 years of reef conservation work to know how to save and make our coral reefs productive. In our current tropical marine world, most of the negative impacts on reefs are locally derived and can be reversed—this is a source of hopeWe just need to remember that acting locally is still very important!

Sue: It's amazing how resilient marine ecosystems are, even if there are going to be loads of changes. I think they could be just as interesting and just as lovely and just as useful in whatever way as long as we manage them appropriately and as long as we do have protected areas actually keep some remnants of what they once were. And then it's going to be really interesting to see what we can restore in terms of restoration, and what we can't. So I'm optimistic because we have the technology, and we have so many people keen and interested. So I'd rather be optimistic than pessimistic about it.

With these hopeful thoughts, please tell us your conservation story and how tech or the Allen Coral Atlas is helping you reach your local, regional, or national goals.