Future of Coral Reefs in the Time of Climate Change

Coral reefs are one of the world’s most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems. They provide abundant ecological goods and services and are central to the socio-economic and cultural welfare of coastal and island communities – throughout tropical and subtropical ocean countries – by contributing billions of dollars to the local and global economies, when combined with tourism and recreation.

Coral reefs also play a vital role in the protection of shorelines, fisheries, biodiversity and unique ecosystems. Building magnificent reefs, tiny coral polyps have developed an incredible ability to calcify and are the most prolific mineralizers on the planet.

They form immense structures like the Great Barrier Reef, which is a world heritage site. And in doing so, they make more minerals than any other organism and have adapted specialized structures that are well worth imitating.

Biomimicry is the concept of the imitation of models, systems, and elements of nature to solve complex human problems. It is an efficient, innovative, and sustainable way compared to conventional techniques, and hence it has scope in the future of sustainable habitats.

Biomineralization expert Brent Constantz of Stanford University was inspired to make a new type of cement for constructing buildings by copying how corals build reefs.

Making this cement through biomimicry removes carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas that causes global warming, as noted by Carla A. Wise (12 March 2010) in “Biomimicry inventors tackle environmental problems”.

Corals have evolved chemical defenses to protect themselves from predators. These substances are important sources of new medicines that are being developed to treat cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and other maladies.

Further research is being developed for potential medical treatments, nutritional supplements, pesticides, cosmetics, and other commercial products. Unfortunately, the adverse effect of human activities adversely impacts upon these valuable maritime resources.

Among the most critical of threats are improper fishing activities (bottom trawling), land-based sources of pollution (such as sewage discharge, microplastic pollution), climate change, ocean warming and acidification, and habitat destruction through rapacious overfishing with China and Taiwan among the chief culprits.

Corals reefs are the foundation of tropical marine ecosystems that exist in a symbiotic relationship with algae and plankton that keep the world’s fish stocks sustained. Corals obtain their energy by consuming compounds derived from photosynthesis by the microorganisms inhabiting coral tissue.

This symbiosis is very sensitive and subject to subtle environmental changes, such as increased ocean acidity and rising temperature. When excessively stressed, the colorful algae are expelled from the corals, causing the corals to bleach and eventually die.

The most significant threat to coral reefs ever documented was the high temperature-related coral bleaching caused by the El Nino Southern Oscillation of 1997-98. Recovery of affected reefs has been primarily through the regrowth of surviving colonies.

Since then, significant coral recruitment has been observed, raising hopes for the recovery of several reefs if other major threats do not transpire in the near term.

Nevertheless, threats to coral reefs continue due to human activities including overfishing, destructive fishing practices, pollution, human settlement and development, mining, commercial shipping industry and rampant tourism in tropical coastal regions.

The effects of overfishing and bottom trawling on structurally complex habitats and fauna have been compared to the impacts of forest clear-cutting. As nets, beams, trawl doors, chains, and dredges pass over the seabed, the sediment surface and a considerable proportion of the vital habitat of animal and plant life are disturbed, sometimes permanently.

China’s distant water fishing where the fishing boats often use bottom trawling, dragging a net across the seabed entailing significant bycatch (including juvenile fish, sharks, seabirds, marine turtles), damages the seafloor, and irrevocably harms coral reefs. Trawling can also disturb areas where fish breeding stocks congregate, which artisanal fishing communities have traditionally used to identify critical fishing grounds.

Data on the dimensions of various destructive fishing practices (such as blast fishing, anchor damage, and the use of poisons), coral regrowth estimates, and time graphs of fish diversity, all reveal the full extent of all current destruction of coral reefs and their habitat.

Many countries have laws prohibiting blast fishing, but they are not fully implemented unfortunately, and are challenging to enforce in remote areas. The sound waves from the explosions of fish bombs are trapped underwater, making it difficult to detect from the surface. Effective management of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) is key to patrolling illegal fishing areas.

In northern Tanzania, illegal blast fishing poses a critical danger to its coral reefs. Blast fishing was banned in Tanzania in 2003 under the revised Fisheries Act. Such fishing practices carry a penalty however, such illegal practices provide fisherfolk an easy way (short cut) to boost their catch, especially in countries where enforcing maritime laws can be difficult.

A spot check by Anadoly News agency revealed that illegal fishing practices continue unabated in parts of the region as noted by Kizito Makoye (31 August 2021) in “Blast fishing by Tanzanian fishermen endangers marine life in Indian Ocean”.

Dynamite fishing destroys both the food chain and the corals where fish hatchlings nest and grow in safe ecosystems. Without healthy coral reefs, these ecosystems and the fish that live within them die off. It kills the entire food chain, including algae, plankton, large and small fish, and the juveniles that do not grow old enough to breed.

Sustaining the needs of local fisherfolk requires careful examination, given the implications for their livelihoods and socioeconomic wellbeing. One study found that decline in the shark fin trade among communities in eastern Indonesia, led fisherfolk to pursue high-risk activities, including blast fishing, illegal transboundary fishing, and transnational crimes – as noted by the California Environmental Associates in “Trends in Marine Resources and Fisheries Management in Indonesia: A 2018 Review.

Given the complexity of these socio-economic conditions, additional research is required to identify sustainable and practical fisheries management measures that can reduce pressure on the most vulnerable fishing communities and thereby protect coastal livelihoods. Adverse conditions arising from a cycle of poverty results in resource degradation, and if pushed too hard, coral reefs may eventually lose their ability to bounce back even when economic conditions improve.

According to a World Bank report, 56% of the coastline of Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Togo is subject to average erosion of 1.8 meters per year. Benin’s erosion rates are exceptionally high, with an average loss of 4 meters per year.

Beyond the economic cost, coastal degradation takes lives and destroys livelihoods – as noted in the World Bank publication (14 March 2019) in “West Africa’s Coast: Losing Over $3.8 Billion a Year to Erosion, Flooding and Pollution”.

Today, with many nations and communities practicing sustainable ecological programs, human perceptions of nature, the environment, climate and the oceans is changing. Undoubtedly, humans are an integral part of creation, nature, and the environment and therefore developing a new concept of environmental ethics is essential for a sustainable future for the planet.

There are projects that range from education programs, plastic pollution control, Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) eradication, coral nurseries, renewable energy development, and responsible stewardship.

The Global Fund for Coral Reefs (GCF) is a 10-year, USD 625 million blended finance vehicle consisting of a grant window, designed to incubate a pipeline of investible projects, and an investment window which GCF is funding as noted by GCF staff (11 Nov 2021) in “Global Fund for Coral Reefs brings together grant and investment windows at GCF COP26 event”.

Marine biologists vigilantly monitor coral reefs with the help of scuba divers and by deploying autonomous or human-operated underwater vehicles to capture visual data on coral reefs. There are research materials on the effects of oceanographic variables, such as sea temperature, turbulence, salinity, and nutrients feeding coral reefs and their influence on coral growth, reproduction, mortality, assimilation, and adaptation.

Coral plantations are costly and time-consuming, and species introductions are often very challenging. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), located on the shore of the Red Sea, offers a unique combination of wonderful access to coral reefs and world-class research laboratories.

KAUST is working to identify heat-resilient corals and crossbreed them with coral populations elsewhere to increase their heat tolerance – as noted by Marta Vidal (17 Jan 2022) in Deutsche Welle (DW) News in “Could the Red Sea’s heat-resilient corals help restore the world’s dying reefs?.

The CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing system is also helping scientists understand, and possibly improve, how coral reefs respond to the environmental stresses of climate change.

The economic value of coral reefs is rarely appreciated. Gains and losses in numbers activate a sense of realization when confronted with risky decisions related to the environment. Governments, key decision-makers, and individuals working together must advocate more of the actual value of coral reefs when used sustainably.

This will help specifically in restructuring aid and sustainable-conservation efforts to tackle causes of coral reef decline. The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2022 as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA 2022).

This timing from the world’s leading multilateral agency can serve as an excellent opportunity to promote the socioeconomic importance of coral reefs and the maintenance of vibrant coastal communities steeped in the culture of the peoples of the sea.

Gabriel Grimsditch, a marine ecosystem expert at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said, “Apart from urgently cutting carbon emissions, humans can design a network of effective and equitable marine protected areas or locally managed marine areas to protect coral reefs”. Combatting Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing is one of the United Nations critical Sustainable Development Goals – SDG 14 is a problem of grave global concern.

At risk is a significant source of protein for hundreds of millions of people and the health of coral reefs. Stop Fish Bombing, an NGO registered as a charity in Hong Kong, has developed underwater bomb location technology in collaboration with the Californian tech company ShotSpotter to adapt their gunshot location technology to help detect and alert law enforcement and ultimately eradicate destructive fishing practices.

This innovative technology testing by the NGO Stop Fish Bombing must extend to all continents. Local announcements of such innovations can allow administrations to create alerts.

Coral reefs form barriers to protect the shoreline from waves and storms – where coral reef structures buffer shorelines against erosion and floods, helping to prevent loss of life and property damage.

Shoreline protection is necessary to retain and rebuild natural systems (such as cliffs, dunes, wetlands, and beaches) and to protect man’s artifacts (buildings, infrastructure, etc.). Working together with governments and law enforcement coastal communities can significantly improve the operational efficiency of enforcement activities and legal processes, which has the potential to have a global impact.