We Can Save Earth’s Coral Reefs

Our planet’s natural ecosystems are in trouble. Recent advances in “big data” and improved remote sensing tools show us that collective human impacts are leaving fewer places untouched, with only 15% of the Earth’s land mass formally protected and global biodiversity declining at an unprecedented rate.

Global assessments led by scientists, such as the 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook published this week, and others endorsed by governments through bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), make it clear that governments are failing to meet existing global targets for biodiversity, and that critical ecosystems like coral reefs will be altered to the point that the biodiversity they hold, and the services they provide, will be damaged beyond repair.

Corals in particular have shown the most rapid increase in extinction risk of all assessed species groups, with studies showing an estimated two thirds of coral reef fish lost compared to historical reefs as only 2.5 percent of the world’s reefs are being actively protected.

We must respond to this remarkable scientific and political consensus on biodiversity loss with meaningful action. As an international community, we must do more to help protect those important ecosystems such as coral reefs, which provide extraordinary contributions to both biodiversity (about 25 percent of all marine biodiversity across about 0.1 percent of the ocean floor) and human wellbeing (economic and food security for hundreds of millions of people).

International plans, usually in the form of policy frameworks, are well suited to globalized threats such as climate change, but have a hard time addressing the myriad complex localized threats facing coral reefs (such as overexploitation, pollution, coastal and industrial development) and other ecosystems.

They do, however, play an important role in driving consensus around how to measure and monitor ecosystems like coral reefs and the benefits they provide to people. They also galvanize political will, unlock billions in financing for nature conservation, and provide the impetus to drive change at a local level.

Currently, all but a few of the world’s governments are in the process of negotiating updated, consensus-based goals and targets for biodiversity conservation to replace those that expire in 2020. This “post-2020 global biodiversity framework” will guide the actions and investments of the 196 governments that are party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The negotiations are expansive and complex.

Over the last two years, members of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), a global partnership of more than forty governments and more than forty civil society organizations with coral reef expertise, have agreed on the parts of this framework that are critical for coral reefs. 

First, they agree that vulnerable reefs must be recognized as priority ecosystems in the post-2020 framework. Coral reefs provide unique contributions to both biodiversity and human wellbeing. It is therefore vital to identify the key state-based indicators of reef health, and to dedicate resources for tracking coral reef change and, ultimately, the effectiveness of coral reef conservation and management. 

Second, ICRI Members agree that coral reefs are complex ecosystems. All too often conservation is reduced to a binary assessment of whether an ecosystem is present or not, and whether it is protected or not. Action needs to be taken long before an ecosystem or species is lost; indeed, we need targets to inspire proactive interventions to keep coral reefs from dropping below key thresholds (see below). In reality, ecosystems are highly complex in their health and functioning, and their conservation status can be measured in different ways.

Intact coral reefs, or those with high ecological integrity, are also key to food and economic security for coastal communities, and are deeply enmeshed in local culture or identity. We will not be able to conserve coral reefs without respecting and protecting the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples, who rely on healthy ecosystems, including coral reefs, for their wellbeing and cultural identities.

Protecting the integrity and resilience of coral reefs therefore depends on identifying the context-appropriate interventions and management regimes to achieved desired ecological and social outcomes.

Lastly, ICRI Members agree to develop and use better tools, or indicators, to measure progress. Assessments of progress towards existing goals on coral reefs typically focus on compilations of thousands of site-specific observations compiled by important organizations such as the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN). While these analyses are critical, several agencies monitoring coral reef health now collect more detailed information that, taken together, can better measure the integrity and function of coral reef ecosystems.

A new online data platform MERMAID (datamermaid.org), for example, helps scientists and management officials collect, organize, and disseminate data on reef fish biomass and diversity, and the cover of hard corals, fleshy algae, and other benthic groups – and all of these are identified by ICRI as key indicators of coral reef health, integrity and function to measure against science-based thresholds.

For example, scientific research has demonstrated that reefs need a precautionary threshold of roughly 30 percent live coral cover to secure growth, and at least 500-600 kilograms per hectare of reef fish biomass is needed to maintain fisheries productivity, ecosystem function, and biodiversity.

Although the ICRI recommendation represents remarkable consensus by over 80 governments and civil society organizations, the recommendation is non-binding under international law. Moving from consensus to conservation action will require governments to adopt these targets through the CBD negotiations, and implement the needed actions in close consultation with Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and stakeholders across civil society.

The decisions of governments during the ongoing CBD negotiations and their actions in the years to come will determine whether or not our planet’s coral reefs will continue to exist in ways that provide benefits to biodiversity and society. Governments, and particularly the representatives leading the CBD negotiations, have an immense task in front of them—to safeguard functioning coral reefs, and in fact all of the planet’s ecosystems and species.

We know a future without coral reefs is no future at all. Let’s get to work on moving from consensus to action.

To learn more about WCS’s recommendation on the CBD post-2020 negotiations, please follow this link

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