Saving the coral reefs | Sunday Observer

Saving the coral reefs

Have you seen a coral reef ? If you have taken a trip in a glass bottomed boat in Hikkaduwa/Unawatuna or a coastal area more or less anywhere in the world, you would have caught a glimpse of these ‘underwater forests’. It is a beautiful sight from above, but if you are one of the few who dive in the open ocean, it is a spectacular riot of colour and rhythm. But if recent reports are true, television may be the only way to experience this majestic feature of the sea perhaps even within our lifetime.

Scientists are already warning that children born today may be the last generation to see coral reefs in all their glory. Global heating and ocean acidification have already severely bleached 16 to 33% of all warm-water reefs, but the remainder are vulnerable to even a fraction of a degree more warming, says David Obura, Chair of the Coral Specialist Group in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Corals are often described as undersea forests, but are declining far more quickly than the Amazon. Along with the Arctic and high-mountain landscapes, the reefs – which have evolved over hundreds of millions of years – are likely to be among the first ecosystems to be wiped out by the climate crisis. A few of the more than 800 coral species have already been declared extinct.

Risk assessments

Speaking to the media, Obura added: “Children born today may be the last generation to see coral reefs in all their glory. Today’s reefs have a history going back 25 million to 50 million years and have survived tectonic collisions, such as that of Africa into Europe, and India into Asia. Yet, in five decades we have undermined the global climate so fundamentally that in the next generation we will lose the globally connected reef system that has survived tens of millions of years.”

The warning follows a landmark UN climate report that upgraded risk assessments for corals following faster-than-expected global bleaching. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that if warming reached 2C, currently it is very likely that in the next 50 years, there would be a more than a 99% chance that tropical corals would be eradicated. Most available evidence suggests that coral dominated ecosystems will be non-existent at this temperature or higher, said the study, which was approved by all 195 nations of the UN, last month.

This is indeed a stark warning to all countries including Sri Lanka. Corals are not just for beauty. We all know that corals as well as mangroves (which are also on the decline in parts of the world) did play a major role in saving certain cities and coastal communities from the massive Indian Ocean Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. It is also a complete ecosystem in miniature that is home to a surprising number of other species. The animated movie hit ‘Finding Nemo’ highlighted the symbiotic relationship between corals and certain species of fish.

Indeed, as well as losing one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse habitats on Earth, the UN report warned of severe impacts to fisheries and millions of people living in coastal communities, who will lose vital sources of income. A temperature rise of just 1 to 2C can trigger an evacuation of the algae upon which corals depend, draining them of colour and making the structure more brittle. These bleaching events can be temporary if waters cool, but the more frequent they are and the longer they last, the greater the risk of irreparable damage. But that is exactly what is happening. Bleaching was first observed in 1983. It was seen on a global level in 1998, then 2010, then again for three consecutive years from 2015 to 2017.

Coral bleaching

The authors of the report have very grim news. Coral bleaching events are growing so severe and so frequent around the planet that reef systems are fragmenting into isolated pockets. Some of these will undoubtedly survive this century, but scientific evidence tells us that, unless we do everything to limit warming to 1.5C, we will lose 99% of the world’s coral reefs in the coming decades. The IPCC report noted that even if temperatures were held to 1.5C, between 70% and 90% of reefs would be lost. Eleven of the 29 World Heritage reefs have already suffered bleaching. UNESCO predicts this will rise to 25 by 2040.

Reefs off Saudi Arabia, Madagascar, Hawaii and Papua New Guinea are most likely to be affected before 2040. Reefs off Egypt, Australia, Cuba, Indonesia and the Philippines have a somewhat better chance of survival beyond 2040, but this could be a different story by 2100, when a 2 Celsius rise in sea temperatures has been predicted.

But there are other factors that damage coral reefs. Sewage run off from tourist resorts and industrial sites along the beach, the pumping of cyanide into the coral structure to stun fish that float out and oil spills/pollution from boats, all pose a danger. Over tourism too can be a hazard. The Philippine tourist resort of Boracay was opened just last week after the authorities closed it to tourists for some time to repair the damage to the local marine and land ecosystems.

The lesson from the Philippines is that we need to reduce stress from overfishing, coastal development, pollution, mining, tourism and climate change. In fact, plans for undersea mining of minerals, for which technology will be ready by around 2030, could also pose a grave danger to coral reefs.

Worldwide, efforts are underway to save coral reefs. The most well-known among them is the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI), a collaboration among six Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.

Global Warming

The CTI on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security (CTI-CFF) is a multilateral partnership of the six countries working together to sustain extraordinary marine and coastal resources by addressing crucial issues such as, food security, climate change and marine biodiversity. The coral reef ecosystems of the Coral Triangle are among the most threatened in the world. Approximately, 95% of them are at risk - overfishing has affected almost every reef in the region, destructive fishing practices are common, land-based pollution is significant, and coastal development is a growing threat. These are unfortunately common to most countries with coasts including Sri Lanka.

Every effort must be made to halt Global Warming and save the Coral Reefs, one of the most valuable ecosystems in the world. As the CTI demonstrates, it should necessarily be an international effort – the Ocean really has no boundaries per se and belongs to all of humanity.