Adapting to Climate Change

Protecting the World's Center of Marine Biodiversity

The Nature Conservancy helped design the first marine protected areas to promote reef resiliency.

Protecting Coral Reefs

Rod Salm, director of marine conservation programs for the Asia Pacific region, explains why protecting coral reefs that are resilient to climate change is a sound conservation investment.


"The idea is to spread the risk by making sure that there is enough of everything protected, and that there is connectivity so that if something happened to one area it could be replenished by another area."

Joe Aitsi, Nature Conservancy marine conservation scientist

On Lolobau Island in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea, "climate change" isn’t part of the general vocabulary.

But whether they know it or not, the people here are helping to protect one of the most biodiverse marine environments in the world from the effects of climate change.

Not Putting All the Eggs in One Basket

Kimbe Bay is part of the global center of marine diversity called the Coral Triangle, which supports 76 percent of the world’s coral species.

Here, The Nature Conservancy helped design the first network of marine protected areas (MPAs) designed to incorporate the principle of reef resiliency.

The MPAs hew to three principles meant to help the area adapt to the possible effects of climate change:

  • Spreading risk through replication and representation
  • Protecting critical areas (such as fish spawning sites)
  • Connectivity 

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” says Joe Aitsi, a marine conservation scientist at the Conservancy.

“The idea is to spread the risk by making sure that there is enough of everything protected, and that there is connectivity so that if something happened to one area it could be replenished by another area.”

Conservancy experts and partners designed an MPA network at Kimbe Bay that would protect the coral reefs that may be naturally more resilient to rising sea temperatures.

The reefs are linked together by ocean currents, allowing coral larvae from healthy reefs to replenish those that have experienced coral bleaching from warmer waters.

The plan also includes protection of critical coastal habitats, such as turtle nesting beaches that are threatened by sea level rise and mangroves that protect against the increasingly violent storms associated with climate change.

Local People Must Be Involved

In Papua New Guinea, the first step to effective conservation is community involvement. That’s because people — not the government — own land and water resources.

So the 14 “areas of interest”  — where conservation is needed the most — in the Kimbe Bay MPA network were chosen not only for their biophysical importance, but also because of socioeconomic factors.

In Kimbe Bay, community members create each management plan with help from the Conservancy. The plans are then signed by community leaders and their local-level government. This process allows the Conservancy to step back and let the community manage their own resources.

Building community awareness is also a large part of creating a workable marine protected area. According to Aitsi, one major challenge is just helping people understand how fragile their resources are and the importance of creating a plan to protect them.

“We were having to go further and further out to fish, but villagers were still using harmful fishing practices,” said Thadeus Balua, a resident of the Potou village on Lolobau Island. “When the Conservancy came to us, people began to change their fishing practices. People are now respecting what is in the environment.”

Balua and several other community members have been trained in a globally accepted reef monitoring system. They monitor food fish and look for trends among target species in their reefs.

The monitors will receive ongoing training and support from the Conservancy, but will be able to act as stewards to their community’s marine resources.

Looking Ahead

Measuring the success of climate adaptation strategies is an ongoing process. So the Conservancy is working with leaders in the reef research community to fine-tune the implementation of resiliency principles.

For example, experts from James Cook University in Australia are researching where fish travel in different life stages — information that is extremely relevant to the local populations who depend on fish for food.

The lessons learned from Kimbe Bay are already being reapplied throughout the Coral Triangle, in areas such as the Solomon Islands and Indonesia.

Kimbe Bay’s MPA network serves as an example of how adaptive management can help envision a larger conservation goal, sustaining the area’s natural resources in a rapidly changing world.


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