5 Coral Reef Conservation Success Stories From 2020
1. Australian Scientists Discover 500 Meter Tall Coral Reef In The Great Barrier Reef–first To Be Discovered In Over 120 Years
Scientists have uncovered a massive coral reef off the northern tip of Australia, the first discovery of its kind in 120 years, just off the Great Barrier Reef. The 500-metre-high reef surpasses the height of the Empire State Building and the Shanghai World Financial Center. During a 3D mapping project on the Northern Great Barrier Reef Seafloor, researchers made their discovery as part of a year-long project to investigate the oceans around Australia. With a 1.5-kilometer-wide base, the reef tapers to a point just 40 meters below the surface of the water. The huge, blade-like reef is not part of the main body of the Great Barrier Reef and adds to the seven other large, disconnected reefs in the region. You can find the full exploratory dive of the recently discovered coral reef here and what it means to coral conservation efforts.
2. Accelerating Heat Tolerance In Corals
Coral reefs are struggling with warming sea temperatures due to climate change. Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef declined by around half due to summer heat waves in 2016 and 2017, followed by an 89% decline in coral larval recruitment in 2018. Despite this fast decline, studies have discovered a breakthrough that offers hope for the future of coral reefs. Normally, as the water becomes too acidic, corals expel the algal symbionts that exist within their tissues, resulting in coral bleaching.
Over the last four years, Buerger and colleagues have been growing these algal symbionts at elevated temperatures (31 °C) to help increase their thermal tolerance. Their aim is to maximize the heat-tolerance of the symbiont, which could, in essence, increase the heat-tolerance of the corals when incorporated back into the host. But did this theory work? Matter of fact, three of the 10 laboratory heat-evolved algal symbionts improved the resistance of bleaching in corals. These results are unlikely to be a much-needed quick-fix to the challenges in coral conservation. However, the research greatly strengthened our understanding of thermal resistance in corals and, possibly, such heat-evolved algal symbionts could be used in projects to restore degraded coral reefs.
3. Researchers Called For Corals In The Red Sea To Be Protected
Climate change is causing accelerated ocean warming, leading to major global coral bleaching events. It is estimated that 70 to 90% of coral reefs will be lost by 2050, demonstrating the imminent need for ocean protection. In 2020, experts applied to UNESCO to designate the 2,500-mile coral reef of the Red Sea a Marine World Heritage Site.
Corals in the Gulf of Aqaba, in the northernmost region of the Red Sea, are capable of withstanding ocean temperature fluctuations that normally cause coral bleaching elsewhere. Identifying the durability of the reef may be key to maintaining the protection of coral reefs in other regions of the world with vulnerability to ocean temperature increases. Corals of the Gulf of Aqaba, maybe one of the last surviving reefs of the century, so it is crucial that nations manage the Gulf-wide research and coral conservation efforts despite regional political tensions.
Research from the region has emphasized human reliance on the health of the Red Sea reefs. They provide food and revenue to the fast-growing population of more than 28 million people. Corals also have the ability to become a supplier of new medicines. While cities and towns continue to grow in the region, coral reefs are under mounting stress to cater for this ever-increasing population. Some parts of the reef have already been seriously degraded by overfishing, unregulated tourism and coastal construction.
The researchers stressed the crucial need to advance the urgent preservation of the Gulf of Aqaba to be recognized as a World Heritage Site as part of an effort involving Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Ideally, UNESCO aims to recognize the whole coral reef of the Red Sea as a Marine World Heritage Site. Regional scientists and policymakers need to work together to incorporate translational science, surveillance and restoration efforts, as well as to pursue UN funding for a long-term scientific monitoring program.
The following steps have been proposed by the researchers:
- Absolute regional collaboration across high level government for coral conservation
- Informing governments of the monetary importance and vast medicinal capacity of the reef for each nation;
- Long-term regional surveillance of the threats to these reefs from new coastal growth and accompanying rising population; and
- Sustainable development of the coast of the Red Sea
4. Tubbataha Reef Found To Be An Eden For Sharks
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, located in the coral triangle in the Philippines, was witnessed to be hosting an extremely large number of reef sharks during a recent expedition led by researchers from the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute of the Philippines, the Tubbataha Management Office and the Marine Megafauna Foundation. Such figures give hope because many shark stocks worldwide are dwindling and the health of the local coral reef is diminishing. That’s why having such a stable reef with numerous shark sightings is such a cause for celebration!
Using underwater visual surveys and underwater camera traps, the scientists researched the density and ecology of sharks and rays in this reef, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Some of the largest abundances of gray coral sharks and white-tip reef sharks reported worldwide have been observed!
There are many reasons for the success of this natural park. One of the most significant reasons is that the park is properly maintained and the laws of non-compliance are followed due to the diligent staff of the Tubbataha Management Office and the Tubbataha Reef Rangers. Its remoteness, scale and protection have potentially also contributed to the survival of a stable environment since the 1980s. Enforcement of legislation and the involvement of local citizens is a core component of effective marine protected areas, or they risk being paper parks that only exist on paper.
5. Rewilding The Coast One Tree At A Time
Mangrove forests shelter our coasts, host an amazing ecosystem and capture large volumes of CO2. In short, the livelihoods of many people are dependent on mangroves. Dense root systems of mangrove trees capture sediments moving down rivers. It helps to protect the coastline and prevents tides and hurricanes from eroding. The trees also shield coral reefs and seagrass meadows from being smothered in sediment.
However, almost half of the world’s total mangrove forest cover has vanished since 1980 due to a rise in commercial deforestation, fuelwood collection, conversion to rice or coconut cultivation, and aquaculture ponds (e.g. shrimp farms). Many mangrove planting projects have mobilized volunteers to replant mangroves in recent years to counteract this degradation.
However, the IUCN warns that such mass mangrove planting efforts are often not sustainable. A common mistake in mangrove restoration is not choosing the right species for the right site, or failing to get the ‘right mix’ of species. It’s not all bad news though. With the increasing wealth and availability of knowledge on mangroves and how to restore them, successful restoration projects are possible. Efficient conservation projects are feasible due to the growing wealth and availability of information on mangroves and how to preserve them.
The Mangrove Action Project encourages and teaches the best practice of the ‘Community-Based Sustainable Mangrove Regeneration’ technique. Their approach attempts to resolve the issues that caused mangrove losses in the first place and focuses on understanding the ecology, hydrology (water flows) and the needs of the local population to establish a tailored conservation strategy. This technique has also been successfully used to rehabilitate mangroves in Thailand and Indonesia as part of the post-Tsunami recovery process. We are likely to see more active mangrove regeneration projects along with coral conservation in the future with training programs around the world.