By Nicole Levins
“You can see the reefs turning white—you can see it!” exclaims Ashton Williams, a reef manager from Antigua. “So how do we go about dealing with that?”
That’s where The Nature Conservancy comes in.
The Conservancy and partners, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are leading workshops for reef managers around the world about the impacts of climate change on reefs and what strategies they can take to address issues like bleaching.
“We are trying to empower reef managers to be able to reduce the impacts of climate change because often, they feel there is nothing they can do,” says Stephanie Wear, a scientist with the Conservancy’s Marine Team.
At the heart of these trainings is education and understanding about reef resilience, a concept pioneered by Nature Conservancy scientists that just might help save some of the world’s healthiest reefs.
Reef Resilience and Climate Change
What is reef resilience?
As ocean temperatures increase as a result of climate change, many coral reefs are falling victim to a phenomenon known as bleaching. This causes corals to expel the colorful algae that live within them and will ultimately lead to the death of the corals if the algae don't return.
Throughout the tropics, the threat of mass coral bleaching is everywhere, and can lead to:
- Decreased populations of fish and sea life,
- Economic hardship for local people dependent on the reef ecosystem, and
- Increased threat from storm surge and coastal erosion.
But not every coral reef is susceptible to bleaching — some are able to survive. So instead of just focusing on the reefs that are dying, Conservancy scientists are studying why some coral reefs are resilient and able to bounce back after experiencing stressful events. This information could help save more reefs from destruction.
Sharing Our Conservation Knowledge
Lessons learned from these resilient systems can be applied around the world. Through reef resilience workshops, the Conservancy and its partners are working to leverage what successful reef practitioners know, and to share that knowledge with reef managers around the globe.
Through intense, onsite courses, the Conservancy and its partners provide reef managers with:
- a greater knowledge of climate change,
- tips on relaying climate change and reef health messages to the public and
- a set of draft plans to enact their own marine protected areas (MPAs) and bleaching response scenarios.
Conservancy marine scientists train a broad range of reef managers on reef resilience strategies. These managers typically include, park and fisheries managers, private industry dive operators, marine resources professionals, and academics ranging from students to professors.
“It is part of the Conservancy’s reef resilience strategy to build capacity and understanding about what is happening with climate change,” says Wear.
Training on the Reef
The Conservancy and its partners perform the reef resilience training where managers can study reefs in ideal conditions. One recent workshop was largely funded by NOAA and held on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, home to some of the world’s most pristine underwater ecosystems. Bonaire was “an ideal place” to hold the workshop, providing participants with a real-life model of what a healthy reef should look like, explains Wear.
“If you haven’t seen a really healthy reef, the healthiest one you’ve seen is your idea of ‘healthy,’” she adds, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the reef is in ideal shape.
During training, attendees are taught the basics of resilience through classroom exercises and field dives and assessments.
In the classroom, instructors like Wear stress the aspects of reef function that are critical for survival—and what managers can do to support and protect those functions, including:
- Collaborating with local governments and communities to protect and promote reef health
- Working to mitigate and limit the impacts of fishing
- Identifying species crucial for reef recovery, and ensuring that they’re well-represented
- Creating a plan for MPAs
“We focus on different management strategies and actions that are useful in the context of climate change,” explains Wear. “We try to provide information and then apply it to a hands-on, real-life activity, so participants go home having already thought about how they are going to address these problems.”
Helping Where They Can
While it’s true that individual managers can’t stop climate change, helping corals maintain optimum health can affect how their reefs respond to its effects. A reef with a healthy immune system is more likely to survive and thrive despite warming sea temperatures.
Ultimately, participants leave with a continued commitment to protecting their countries’ coral systems.
During the Bonaire training, Ashton Williams, said he hoped to find ways to convey to his community the severity of the issues facing its reefs.
“My expectations for this workshop were very high, and it has met those expectations,” he said.
Williams planned to share what he learned about reef resilience with local people, and said he wanted to elevate the message to his government as well.
Nicole Levins is a media coordinator for the Nature Conservancy.
Video shot by Henry DeBey, a graduate student at Yale University and a Conservancy volunteer.