|June 4, 2004—From the sparkling waters of the Caribbean to the far reaches of the Andaman Sea, the planet’s coral reefs are endangered and many are already dying.
Half of the world’s coral reefs are under serious threat from human pressure and climate change, according to Global Status of Coral Reefs Report, biannual publication that tracks their health.
“The threat of continued and wide scale loss of the world’s coral reefs may be one of the least publicized and least understood of all environmental threats we face,” says Bob Watson, World Bank's Chief Scientist.
In addition, while most people are dazzled by coral reefs’ unusual beauty and biodiversity, few appreciate their economic contribution, which is estimated at more than $500 billion each year globally through fisheries, tourism and coastal protection.
Hundreds of millions of people depend on them for their livelihood; nearly one billion people derive their nutrition from reef-related fisheries.
But this huge, under-appreciated economic resource is in crisis.
Saving the Reefs
It takes thousands of years for a coral reef to form,
yet it can be wiped out the geological blink of an eye. With this in mind, an ambitious World Bank-backed project is striving to bring some of the world’s top marine scientists together to help managers find ways to preserve these unique underwater treasures.
|"It's like an old-growth forest. Once it's gone, it's gone forever," says Ian Johnson, the World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development |
The Coral Reef Targeted Research and Capacity Building Project aims to increase the level of knowledge among scientists about coral reef ecosystems, from how they respond to pressures from human stress to climate change to what interventions may help strengthen their resilience, explains Marea Hatziolos, the World Bank team leader for the project.
Learning more about these fragile ecosystems and putting this information in the hands of decision-makers will help protect coral reefs from climate change, pollution and the effects of over-fishing.
“To date research on reefs mostly has been fragmented and uncoordinated, giving us little insight about scale and differences between regional effects and global trends,” says Hatziolos.
Centers of Excellence
A key feature of the project will be to establish Centers of Excellence in four key coral reef regions of the world, which will serve as focal points of exchanges between scientists from developing and developed countries. The centers will also build capacity in countries where coral reefs are found by providing cutting edge equipment and techniques and by providing promising young researchers graduate fellowships.
|Centers of Excellence |
Puerto Morelos Marine Laboratory of the Universidad Autonoma Nacional de Mexico
Western Indian Ocean
Institute of Marine Science of the University of Dar Es Salaam, in Zanzibar, Tanzania
at the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines
Great Barrier Reef
Heron Island Marine Laboratory of the University of Queensland, Australia.
The project will also seek ways to help reefs stave off the effects of climate change.Hatziolos notes that, “In the last major El Nino episode of 1997-98 in which seas warmed by 1-2°C, 30% of the world’s coral reefs bleached, and 16% died. Bleaching is a response to stress in which corals shed the food producing algae that live inside their tissue, and along with them their color, to reveal the bone white skeleton inside. This skeleton is similar in structure to human bone and gives coral reefs their structure. But corals in some areas have shown resistance to bleaching and the project will seek to understand and, if possible, build on this resistance to improve the management of reefs.
Ultimately, the hope is to produce new tools such as portable stress tests to help developing country scientists analyze whether local reefs are vulnerable, or likely to recover from outbreaks of disease or from major weather events, such as cyclones or hurricanes. “Armed with such information, a manager can be more proactive in trying to manage local stress, by closing certain areas to tourism or fishing, until stress levels fall below threshold levels,” says Hatziolos.
Finding the Missing Link
By providing tools to understand how different coral reefs are linked, the project may generate economic incentives for countries to take action collectively to protect their coral reefs.
“For example, some fisheries in the Caribbean rely on spawning grounds far upstream—in other countries,” explains Hatziolos. “If such relationships can be established and quantified, then payment for environmental services by downstream users becomes an option to finance protection measures, including marine protected areas.”
Six scientific working groups have been formed by the project to coordinate research and fill knowledge gaps around key themes:
- Coral bleaching and local ecological factors. This group seeks to develop tests to detect whether a reef is vulnerable to bleaching from climate change and other forms of stress, and whether corals can be made more resilient by altering the kinds of algae that coexist inside their tissue.
- Connectivity and large-scale ecological processes. This group seeks a better understanding of how reefs and marine systems are connected will improve the design of protected areas.
- Coral diseases. This group seeks to understand the increase and spread of disease in order to prevent or slow its spread.
- Coral restoration and remediation. This group seeks to identify the scientific protocols necessary to design and implement restoration strategies, circumstances under which enhanced recovery interventions may be cost effective, and prospects for combining reef remediation with small and micro-enterprises, such as restocking certain reef species of high commercial value, at the local level.
- Remote sensing. This group is already testing tools such as satellite, airborne, acoustic and in-field methods of monitoring coral reef health in the context of preparing an Ocean Atlas, featuring Coral Reefs. The effectiveness of current sensing techniques varies depending on the type of reef. Without a proper understanding of remote sensing, technology may be oversold or deployed for unrealistic management objectives.
- Modeling and decision support. This group seeks to predict the impact of cumulative stress caused by increasing coastal populations, changes in climate and other uncertainty, and to develop tools to improve coral reef management and communication.
The project represents an international partnership between developed and developing countries scientists. Partners include the Global Environment Facility, the Development Grant Facility of the World Bank, the University of Queensland in Australia and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.
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