Can We Save Coral Reefs?

Schooling French grunts, surrounding pillar coral in the Bloody Bay Marine Park on Little Cayman.                   @DIANA SCHMITT


The United Nations has reported that 70 per cent of the Earth's coral reefs are threatened: 20 per cent have already been destroyed with no hope for recovery, 24 per cent are under imminent risk of collapse, and an additional 26 per cent are at risk due to longer-term threats.1 Coastal ecosystem degradation is especially problematic, as 40 per cent (3.1 billion) of the world's population lives within 100 kilometres of the ocean, which means that massive losses to coral reef ecosystems are also an economic and social issue.2  Reef structures protect coastal communities from storm waves, provide sand for beaches and generate enormous recreational revenue for local businesses. Coral reefs also serve as the twenty-first century's medicine cabinet. Myriad organisms, including sponges, corals and sea hares, contain molecules that express potent anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-tumour and/or anti-bacterial effects. New treatments for Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, viruses and inflammation are being developed from these molecules. The collapse of coral reefs has far-reaching implications for the entire ocean, for people and, indeed, for the planet. Going forward, the focus must be on how to conserve what is left, ideally taking bold, decisive steps to reverse the unthinkable trajectory. Such solutions will require innovations and partnerships that can spearhead the societal-level change needed to halt the damage to coral reefs and reverse the downward trend in their health and survival.

Time is not on our side, but the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development outlines a plan for the future protection of the ocean. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) bring a sharper focus on the economic, social and cultural ramifications of major declines in fish populations, coral reef ecosystems and coastal erosion due to sea level rise and poor management.3 For instance, SDG 14 describes the need to reduce marine pollution; regulate the harvesting of fish; and end overfishing, unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible. The goal is to sustainably manage and protect at least 10 per cent of marine and coastal ecosystems by 2020, and to strengthen their resilience and take action fur their restoration.

With 70 per cent of coral reefs already gone or threatened, however, greater levels of protection will be required to potentially compensate for the increasing stress brought on by climate change. Corals turn white and 'bleach' as symbiotic algae are essentially expelled from the animal when stressed. Prolonged periods of higher-than-normal sea surface temperature have led to global coral mortality, events that climate models predict will only become more frequent.4 Some studies show that managed, no-take marine reserves with 50 per cent of the reefs under protection are not immune to warming seas but are capable of recovering.5 Unfortunately, the most current episode of bleaching on Australia's Great Barrier Reef illuminates how climate change, driven fundamentally by anthropogenic carbon emissions, is destroying this critical marine ecosystem despite protection, even in locations far removed from human populations.6 The 2015 Paris Agreement, adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21), was heralded as a new dawn that could mitigate the consequences of climate change to humankind but not for coral reefs. For the reefs to survive, however, confronting climate change impacts must be front and centre for any other proffered solutions to make a difference. What other avenues are there to tackle this complex problem? Consider the following extra-governmental paradigm: public-private collaborations.


In June 2016, an influential cross section of coral reef scientists and social scientists, foundation leaders, non­governmental organization directors, policymakers and interested members of the general public gathered in London for the International Symposium on "Rethinking the Future for Coral Reefs". The Symposium was led by His Royal Highness Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, the founding patron of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI). CCMI is a non-governmental coral reef education and research organization, with a bustling facility on Little Cayman, Cayman Islands. Supported largely by private funds, the organization has navigated partnerships with local schools so that every Caymanian child can be ocean literate by the time they reach 12 years of age.

The goal of the Symposium was to establish a dialogue among experts from the public and private sectors with broad perspectives on what steps could lead to a healthy future for coral reefs. The focus was on the need for a more progressive, ambitious and innovative approach to both provide immediate protection and prevent further losses. The agreement, disagreement, surprises and outcomes from the Symposium can be summarized in the context of COP 21 and SDG 14. The major conclusion was that solutions for protecting the future for coral must rapidly transcend social, economic and cultural boundaries. The emissions goals set in Paris at COP 21 would lead to temperature increases by 2030 that would be devastating fur coral reefs.7 Furthermore, the SDG 14 recommendations may need to consider more specifically the level of reef destruction already in progress due to climate change and direct human impacts.

Increasing the size of protected areas and removing detrimental impacts require dealing with human issues that lie beyond the borders of protected areas. Conservation relies on strong governance that is often overshadowed by private interests. Changing human behaviour and the conditions that influence behaviour, including poverty and the effects of globalization, would be a necessary first step in many areas.8 Teaching sustainable fishing, and providing opportunities for renewable energy and ecotourism are strategies that have successfully increased the rates of employment and improved sanitation while decreasing poverty, malnutrition and pollution. Longer-term solutions should enhance the status of women in developing countries who significantly support marine fisheries and aquaculture by providing access to jobs in those countries.

Top-down governance strategies could be more persuasive if attention was given to assuring positive community perception about the effectiveness of protection. Good governance could effectively reduce overfishing, stop anchor damage and remove direct human impacts so long as the human issues and community perception are included as elements of the plan.9

Coral restoration through farming or transplanting has often been mentioned as a possible solution for reefs in crisis, but it is not likely to be a serious remedy until the original stressors that led to the demise of corals is removed. Destructive harvesting and extraction, as seen recently in the South China Sea, must stop. Ending the practice of releasing waste and sew­ age into coastal waters, which result in algal blooms, would be needed. Halting unplanned coastal development, which reduces the productivity of corals due to increased sedimentation, would play a significant role in reversing the decline of reefs in some locations. The Symposium's findings and recommendations are offered below, both on their merits and as an example of a productive public-private collaboration.


  • The pace of coral reef decline is even faster than current trajectories by at least a decade.
  • Reefs of the future will be remarkably different in structure and composition than reefs today.
  • The 2030 Agenda's SDG 14 target to conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas should be higher for coral reefs, considering that cumulatively 70 per cent of reefs are threatened.
  • Climate impacts on coral reefs, in particular the rapid increases in sea surface temperatures, would kill large areas of reefs that would not be capable of recovering fast enough before further high-temperature events took place.
  • The Paris Agreement goals adopted at COP 21 to reduce carbon emissions are inadequate. Reefs would disappear before these goals were achieved.
  • The collapse of coral reefs has far-reaching implications for the entire ocean and for people, as reefs are considered sentinel ecosystems that protect coastal communities.
  • Public engagement with coral reefs in crisis is woefully low, especially by comparison with many other environmental crises.
  • Societal-level changes are needed in order for coral reef ecosystems to continue functioning.
  • It was noted that activists and campaigners often targeted ministries of environment when proposing action aimed at protection, when it was often more effective to engage ministries of finance or of development, which have greater power and access to resources.


  • Immediate global action to reduce future warming above COP 21 goals is fundamental to coral reef survival.
  • Establish a high-profile movement that makes way for a shift in societal behaviour to reduce adverse impacts on coral reefs and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.
  • Establish an advocacy group and coalition with select entities to advocate and increase awareness, and undertake actions that will produce relevant solutions for a particular region. Focus on the diverse issues of particular regions.
  • Engage leaders of industry, Heads of State, and ministries of finance in the discussion so as to educate, inform and expand the dialogue.
  • Be proactive when relevant issues impacting coral reef health attract media or governmental attention.
  • Become engaged as scientists in the climate discussion and push for faster reductions in emissions.
  • Explore new, innovative, scalable solutions that traverse the scientific disciplines, including management and policy solutions, and expand the dialogue and awareness of the issues and solutions.


With estimates that coral reefs are among the most threatened ecosystems on Earth, the dire need for societal-level changes to reduce human impacts on coral reef ecosystems is no longer a debate. The achievement of SDG 14 by 2030 could help improve ocean resources, to be sure. Actions that protect top predators, identify key herbivorous fish species for protection, halt destructive fishing, boating and diving, and manage exploitation of reef fish cannot hurt. Nevertheless, much more aggressive action and education from the top down to grassroots efforts to achieve a carbon-neutral planet are required to protect coral reefs; otherwise, we're just whistling past Davy Jones' locker.


1   United Nations Department of Public Information, "Life below water: why it matters”, 2016. Available from Goal-14_Life-Below-Water_3p.pdf.

2   Biliana Cicin-Sain, "Goal 14-Conserve and Sustainably Use Oceans, Seas and Marine Resources for Sustainable Development”, UN Chronicle, vol. Ll No.4 (2014}. Available from­resources-sustainable.

3   United Nations Department of Public Information, “Life below water: why it matters”.

4   Reuben Van Hooidonk and others "Local-scale projections of coral reef futures and implications of the Paris agreement", Scientific Reports, vol. 6 (2016).

5   Carrie Manfrino and others, "A positive trajectory for corals at Little Cayman Island", PLOS One, vol. 8, No.10:e75432 (2013).

6   Terry P. Hughes and others “Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals”, Nature, vol.543, No. 7645 (2017), pp. 373-377.

7   ISRS Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Bleaching, October 2015, prepared for the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Paris, December 2015. Available from Bleaching-Ciimate-Change-FINAL-140ct2015-HR.pdf; Van Hooidonk and others "Local-scale projections of coral reef futures and implications of the Paris agreement”. Hughes and others “Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals”.

8   Joshua E. Cinner and others, “Bright spots among the world's coral reefs", Nature, vol. 535, No. 7612 (2016), pp.416-419.

9  Rachel A. Turner and others, "Trust, confidence, and equity affect the legitimacy of natural resource governance”, Ecology and Society, vol. 21, No.3 (2016).