Coral reefs facing a triple threat

By BRYAN WALSH, TIME magazine

This reef off the coast of Madang in Papua New Guinea is threatened by waste from the Ramu mine

An alarming new report published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) highlights the risks facing coral reefs.

The short version: coral reefs are in big trouble. That’s not exactly surprising—coral reefs around the planet have already been badly damaged by bleaching events and destructive fishing practices. But the WRI report shows that reefs face an existential threat from climate change, pollution and overfishing over the next several decades—and there’s a significant chance that we could see massive extinctions. 75% of coral reefs are already threatened, but if we continue down business as usual, nearly all of the world’s coral reefs will be at risk by mid-century.

In a speech given at the launching of the WRI report, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) head Jane Lubchenco laid out just how important reefs are for ocean ecosystems:

Preserving coral reefs is about protecting coastal communities:

  • Coastlines protected by reefs are more stable, more resistant to erosion, than those without. Up to 90 percent of the energy from wind-generated waves is absorbed by reef ecosystems.  In Belize alone, coastal protection afforded by reefs and mangroves provides an estimated $231 to $347 million dollars in avoided damages per year.

Preserving coral reefs is about preserving cultures:

  • As an example, the most linguistically diverse place on earth, Papua New Guinea, is home to approximately 820 different languages and to many people who are dependent on coral reefs. If we lose these reefs, we risk losing the communities and cultures that gave rise to such diversity.

Preserving coral reefs is about food security:

  • We need to expand the way we think about food security far beyond just grains and livestock on land to include fisheries, given that vast numbers of people in developing countries rely on their coastal waters for essential protein.
  • 500 million people worldwide depend daily upon coral reefs for their food and livelihoods. That’s 200 million more people than live in the U.S. alone.

Preserving coral reefs is about ensuring thriving economies:

  • It is difficult to put a precise dollar value on many of the benefits provided by coral reef ecosystems, but by any estimate they are globally and locally valuable.  Tourism, reef fisheries and shoreline protection are particularly noteworthy.

But most of all, preserving coral reefs is about our collective commitment to one another, to the rest of life on the planet and to our future.

Right now the most threatened reefs are found in heavily populated and poorly protected areas of southeast Asia, where once pristine reefs like Raja Ampat off eastern Indonesia have been badly used. The coral reefs of the Caribbean—once the blue jewels—have been heavily stressed by tourism, waste and overfishing. And even areas like Australia—where coral reefs receive some of the best protection on the planet—or the still-untouched coral reefs of the remote south Pacific could still be damaged by climate change, as carbon levels build up in the ocean, turning the waters more acidic and making it impossible for corals to create calcereous skeletons. “Make no mistake,” said Lubchenco. “This is a critical time for ocean ecosystems in general, but especially for coral reefs.”

The good news is that coral reefs are surprisingly resilient, and given enough protection, they can bounce back from most threats. But marine protection—as I wrote in a story for TIME last year—is a joke in most parts of the world, even around the U.S. There’s some hope that could change—visionary conservationists like Sylvia Earle are having some success in encouraging governments to ban together to beef up marine protection, especially in the open seas, which are a virtual free for all. If we keep adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—which eventually finds its way into the ocean—even the best legal protection might not be enough to save a changing ocean, and the coral reefs that depend on it.

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