Protecting coral reefs in a deteriorating environment

Coral reefs around the world face growing danger from a changing climate, on top of the historic threats from local pollution and habitat destruction. In response, scientists are researching new interventions that have the potential to slow coral reef damage from warming and acidifying oceans.  The interventions span a wide range of physical and biological approaches for increasing the stability of coral reefs, but they have only been tested at small scales.

new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, co-authored by Robert Richmond, professor and director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in SOEST, examines these resilience tools and provides decision-makers with a process they can follow in considering whether to use one or more of the novel approaches.

Watch the video overview here

Coral reefs’ destruction has serious human costs, because many coastal communities depend on local reefs for fishing and tourism. Coral reefs also absorb energy from the waves that pass over them, buffering shore communities against destructive storms.

In response to these threats, researchers are developing new ways to improve corals’ persistence in a changing climate – 23 of which were described in the first report released by the committee last November.

Many of the new interventions seek to amplify natural resilience, such as laboratory breeding of corals that show greater heat resistance. Other methods, some merely on the horizon such as genetic manipulation of corals, might one day introduce new levels of stress tolerance. Ultimately, all interventions alter the reef in some way. These changes will result in benefits that differ across sites, and they may have varying unintended consequences – meaning that the risks and benefits need to be weighed locally, the report says.

“Considering the increasing rate and magnitude of coral reef losses world-wide, there is a clear consensus that actions are critically needed to prevent further decline and begin to restore some of that which has already been lost,” said Richmond. “The interventions and decision-making tools presented by the National Academies Committee provide sound science upon which to move to implementation.”

Local factors such as the level of reef degradation, the quality of the water, and the resources and infrastructure available will determine if an intervention is needed or beneficial.

Equally important is whether the intervention is acceptable to a community, the report says. Throughout the decision-making process, it is important to engage a broad set of stakeholders – both to establish objectives and to choose a course of action that reflects community values.

The study — undertaken by the 12-member Committee on Interventions to Increase the Resilience of Coral Reefs — was sponsored by NOAA and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Read more on the NASEM news release.