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Ask the Conservationist

September 2012: Can We Save Coral Reefs?

The news about coral reefs seems dire lately—overfishing, pollution and climate change have some scientists picturing a world without coral reefs. But is all hope loss? And what can be done to save them?

Our coral reef expert weighs in with an optimistic view for the future of coral reefs.

Read the answer from one of the Conservancy’s green living experts below, and don’t forget to send us your questions on any conservation subject for one of the Conservancy's 550 staff scientists. (Note: We regret that we can only answer one or two questions each month and that we cannot answer the others offline.)

Suzanne James of St. Louis, MO, writes:

The outlook for coral reefs seems so gloomy; recent media stories say corals are disappearing at alarming rates. Is there anything that can be done to save them? What?

Stephanie Wear, marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy's Global Marine Team, replies:

It’s true, the threats to reefs today are severe and growing. Caribbean reefs are a shadow of what they were a few decades ago, and many other reefs globally are changing.

But there are also thriving reefs around the world in spite of all the things people have done to them—from Curaçao to Raja Ampat to Palau. Their ability to persist in the face of global climate change is remarkable. Marine science is discovering that reefs are incredibly resilient—and that this resilience can be boosted with proper management techniques.

Here’s an example: In 1998, when the world experienced the largest ever coral bleaching event, and massive extents of corals died, some observers thought that was it for coral reefs. Yet, little by little, corals came back. What scientists and conservationists alike have been doing since is trying to understand why and how —and we are making significant strides that we can build on in our protection work.

There certainly will be winners and losers among reef ecosystems, and reefs will be different in the future than they were a few decades ago or than they are even today. And there is no question that if we don’t get a handle on CO2 emissions (increasing CO2 makes the ocean more acidic—a problem for reefs and many marine organisms), we will certainly see a loss in reefs and the many benefits they provide as sources of food, jobs, medicines and buffers from storm waves.

The Nature Conservancy has been working to protect coral reefs for decades, in countries all over the world. We work locally, with the people who directly manage and benefit from reefs. But we’re also expanding our perspective to look at the global drivers of threats to coral reefs, drivers such as illegal fishing, development and industry.

This year we will be engaging with the corporate and finance sectors—new stakeholders that have never been a part of the coral reef conversation—to help us identify game changing approaches to make sure coral reefs are around once we get this CO2 mess figured out. Curbing CO2 emissions is the single most important thing we can do to protect coral reefs into the future. To be very clear, we have a lot bigger problems than the extinction of coral reefs if we don’t start reducing atmospheric concentrations of CO2. This is still within our reach but we don’t have forever.

But it’s not time to give up hope.

Let me rephrase that: I’m not ready to give up.

I have dedicated my life to the study of coral reefs and their conservation for the past 15 years. My job is to protect coral reef ecosystems and develop new strategies to turn the tide of rapid decline witnessed over the last four decades. I ask myself all the time, am I doing enough?

I don’t kid myself that coral reefs are doing fine, or that they will someday flourish in abundance the way they did just a few decades ago. But I do think there will be reefs in the future, and they will still provide critically important services to the people that depend on them.

We know reefs are changing and, given all that we have done to them, they will be changing for the foreseeable future. But they are not lost and will not be if we take proper action—and science is showing us the way.

Note: This response is adapted from Stephanie's recent blog post on Cool Green Science. Read the full post for more.


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