Coral Reef in Indonesia
Coral Reef in Indonesia A diversity of corals, echinoderms, sponges, and other life compete for space and plankton on the reefs surrounding Bangka Island, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean. © Ethan Daniels


It's Not Too Late to Save Coral Reefs

Senior Marine Scientist, The Nature Conservancy
Mark Spalding Senior Marine Scientist


This year-2018-has been declared the "International Year of the Reef" by the International Coral Reef Initiative, but given recent headlines, you might be forgiven for asking if this was in fact the last year for coral reefs. Coral reefs are "under siege" (USA Today), "ravaged by war" (New York Times) and "headed for [the] knockout punch" (BBC News). Even the normally conservative National Geographic has stated that the "window to save the world's coral reefs [is] closing rapidly".

Coral Reef in Indonesia
Coral Reef in Indonesia Soft Corals and "Windows", photographed underwater in West Papua Province, Indonesia. © Jeff Yonover

This problem hasn't arisen overnight, of course. In 1998 we released the first edition of Reefs at Risk, mapping the vast array of threats facing these extraordinary habitats from coastal development to pollution to overfishing. It highlighted the global scale of the challenges facing reefs and was met with widespread shock. That same year was also the first global coral bleaching event, brought on by the brutally hot combination of El Nino and climate change. And while climate change and coral bleaching dominate today's headlines, it is the combination of these threats with the more local impacts of pollution and over-exploitation that also prevents reefs from recovering—death by a thousand cuts.

The consequences and implications of coral die-offs are numerous—for marine ecosystems, yes, but also for people around the world. Some 200 million people live close to reefs. More than a quarter of all marine species spend at least some part of their life cycle in coral reefs, including species that both commercial and subsistence fishermen depend on. Reefs also protect coastal communities from erosion, flooding and storms—a healthy coral reef can reduce wave force by 97 percent—and generate billions of dollars in value for the tourism, pharmaceutical and other industries.

Clown Blenny on coral.
Clown Blenny Photographed underwater in the Pacific region area of the Solomon Islands. © Daniel & Robbie Wisdom

But it's too early to start writing an obituary for coral reefs. As dire as their fate may seem now, science is changing what we know about coral reefs and how we might save them; about their roles within the broader ocean environment; and about their tremendous benefits to human communities and their economies. In fact, the complexity and interdependence of these systems, and our reliance on them, may be the key to reefs' preservation.

This is key to our work at The Nature Conservancy—we are finding the support we need from our partners and allies in the communities, businesses and institutions whose fates are intertwined with those of coral reefs. And it is in these places, at the intersections of conservation and business, finance and science, high politics and local communities, that we will find solutions.


Well-managed, healthy reefs are proving more resilient to the wider effects of climate change.

Our strategy centers on empowering and collaborating with those on the frontlines of reef conservation. Our Reef Resilience Network, for example, connects marine resource managers around the world and provides information and training opportunities to maximize conservation and restoration efforts. Similarly, our work with fishermen in the Caribbean, the Solomon Islands and other regions is also demonstrating that a more sustainable approach to fishing sustains reef ecosystems and in turn leads to better fishing yields in the long term. Well-managed, healthy reefs are proving more resilient to the wider effects of climate change.

But we're also finding more unlikely allies in the business community. The tourism industry offers a good example. Globally, the tourism industry derives $36 billion in annual revenue from coral reefs; the Conservancy's Mapping Ocean Wealth initiative is helping to identify where and how reefs generate tourism's value and offering more incentives for conservation. And one of the most significant new partners we've developed is the insurance industry, including Swiss Re, one of the largest reinsurers in the world. Recognizing the importance of reefs for protecting coastal development, we are exploring innovative disaster risk financing mechanisms that will support long-term protection and restoration of reefs and other critical natural defenses.

This work is no panacea, of course. Coral bleaching events, driven by warming oceans, are a serious and growing threat, and ocean acidification will complicate matters still further. But science has already demonstrated that reefs have the ability to rebound from extreme damage. Even reefs that were highly degraded by multiple disturbances have shown signs of recovery, so if we can reduce the damage from local sources, reefs will have a better shot at recovering from bleaching events.

The newer and still developing piece of the puzzle, though, comes from our recognition that an awful lot of people have an awful lot to lose from coral reef extinction. We are only just beginning to realize that we can engage these people and sectors—even if they might not always be the most obvious partners—as part of the solution. The challenge is to provide them with the information and the tools they need to make better decisions about actions that will impact reefs. Can we, in fact, empower them to become advocates for reefs? And if we do, can we save coral reefs?

My answer to both questions is an unequivocal "yes." I look forward to sharing more of the Conservancy's progress in the coming months as we move to make this International Year of the Reef a year of hope and resurgence.

Senior Marine Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy's Senior Marine Scientist. Dr. Spalding has worked for TNC since 2004 on marine and coastal conservation. Currently, he is co-leading the Mapping Ocean Wealth initiative and leading and supporting projects around carbon storage, fisheries enhancement, coastal protection and tourism values from coastal and marine ecosystems. 

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