What Will It Take To Save The Coral Reefs?

What Will It Take To Save The Coral Reefs? | Atmos

For Atmos Volume 09: Kinship, photographer Lena C. Emery captured the diverse marine life at Wakatobi National Park.

Coral scientists agree that stopping climate change is the number one priority, but a pitched battle has broken out over what more must be done.

Photographer Lena C. Emery was 18 years old in 2002 when she moved to Wakatobi Dive Resort in Indonesia. A few years earlier, her father, David Emery, helped to establish the area as one of the world’s largest privately funded marine protection programs, which quickly became a coral biodiversity hotspot.

“One of my fondest memories is how nearly every week… someone would shout from the house reef that they’d just discovered an incredibly rare or sometimes even entirely new species,” she said in an email. “Wakatobi is really special in that way—even now, 20 years later, you still feel like you’re part of some secret discovery mission.”

The area hadn’t always been like that. Just a decade earlier, the reefs were being decimated by dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, and old-fashioned netting until it was little more than bare rock. But by the early 2000s, Wakatobi’s founders, along with their team and Indigenous partners, managed to turn the tide. By 2002, the Indonesian government expanded it into a national park, and in 2012, it was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Today, Wakatobi’s 1.39 million acres are home to hundreds of species of corals and fishes.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) like Wakatobi protect coral reefs from local, sometimes existential threats, like fishing and habitat destruction. What was seen in Indonesia manifests elsewhere, too. Across the world, protected areas tend to host more fishhigher biodiversityand less coral disease.

But still, some scientists worry that MPAs may do nothing to stave off corals’ greatest threat: climate change.

“MPAs are screen doors,” said John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They can’t control the temperature on the reef, therefore there’s nothing they can really do about climate change.”

For over one year straight, the oceans have shattered temperature records every single month. As the heat rises, bleaching—a process that severs corals from their mutualistic algae—is becoming more common and intense. Earlier this year, the world entered its fourth global bleaching eventwhich some experts say is on track to be the worst mass bleaching ever. If Earth warms by 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial temperatures, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that 70% to 90% of the world’s coral will disappear. Another half a degree and that climbs to 99%.

Many once surmised that marine protected areas could buy corals time while humans combat climate change, but bleaching in protected places like Wakatobi, the sheer pace of climate extremesand a burgeoning body of research are now casting doubt on that hope.

Dire straits have fractured coral conservationists into factions, setting the stage for a pitched battle over what should be done. Some say that the moment calls for deployment of every possible solution—a hail mary to save the reefs. Others are eyeing a more targeted approach: funneling efforts toward stopping climate change. Without that, they say, everything else is futile, or even worse, a distraction.

“The solution is simply reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Bruno. That alone, he said, is sufficient to quell the coral crisis.

The 2016 mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef fundamentally changed how scientists think about protected areas and bleaching. That year, extreme marine heat killed nearly a quarter of the region’s corals, despite being one of the ocean’s most staunchly protected areas.

The death toll was highest in the most remote and strictly protected northern stretches of the reef; that area was also the hottest. Even with strict prohibitions against human activity, two-thirds of the northern Great Barrier Reef’s corals died in 2016. Temperature alone could explain bleaching intensity, and marine protections offered no respite, according to a landmark study published in Nature in 2017.

That finding has been bolstered since then. For example, a 2019 meta-analysis coauthored by Bruno found little evidence in the scientific literature that local management bolsters climate resilience, and a 2022 analysis of over 3,000 global reef sites found that MPAs and non-MPAs show similar levels of bleaching.

Perhaps most worryingly, protections from fishing may even render reefs more susceptible to climate stressors. In what’s been dubbed the “protection paradox,” species protected from one pressure, such as fishing, may be more sensitive to others, such as heat.

Elizabeth Shaver, a coral conservation program manager at the Nature Conservancy, said that “bleaching knows no boundaries and no barriers.” Still, she said, marine protected areas are vital elements in any coral conservation program. They can protect reefs from localized threats like fishing, which have driven reef decline long before quickfire mass bleaching events did.

Bruno wants to be clear that he fully supports MPAs, too. “I’m radical in terms of fishing and MPAs. Like, I want the whole world to be locked up in an MPA. I’m a vegan, I don’t believe in fishing,” he said. “But the point is that won’t help corals. It’s two separate problems.”

After climate action and conservation, the third prong in the trident of reef solutions is restoration—helping ecosystems recover from damage and destruction.

Bruno is of mixed minds about restoration. On one hand, he said some amount of local benefit is hard to deny. In a world where we’ve defeated climate change, perhaps restoration could help ecosystems bounce back. Still, he said, “it’s hard for me to comprehend how it can ever be scaled up to a big level.”

“I also almost never criticize restoration,” he added. “I do think it’s kind of silly, it’s not effective, and a lot of money’s going into it.”

While the record-breaking pace of ocean heat and coral bleaching happening right now has convinced Bruno that restoration is ineffective, it’s done the opposite for Shaver.

“Now, I believe that restoration is absolutely critical for coral reefs’ future,” she said.

Shaver said her team and partners use advanced restoration techniques that can salvage genetic diversity after it’s been eroded by mass mortality events. Some of these techniques involved fertilizing coral embryos in the lab. These sperm and eggs can come from heat tolerant individuals that have survived bleaching, and they could even come from biobanked genetic variants that might have been lost from the wild. They can produce novel genetic variants that widen a population’s gene pool before it winnows past a critical threshold.

“Bleaching knows no boundaries and no barriers.”

Elizabeth Shaver

coral conservation program manager, the Nature Conservancy

“Restoration is the way that we are obtaining genetic diversity and keeping coral species going,” Shaver said.

This past year, as ocean temperatures soared across the Caribbean, the corals Shaver’s collaborators have outplanted this way have avoided bleaching while their neighbors of the same species did not.

Colleen Bove, a marine ecologist at Ursinus College, added that local restoration is vital, even if it can’t put a dent in the global damage done by climate change. That’s because the local impact for coastal people is immense. In Belize where she does her research, she’s seen simple restoration techniques like propagation and outplanting succeed. Those restored reefs had withstood heat waves that she would have never predicted they could. What’s more, they’ve provided jobs, food, and livelihoods for the people who have relied on the reef for generations.

“Do I think that what they’re doing is going to save coral reefs across the globe? Maybe not,” she said. “But you know what? They’re doing a really good job of keeping their livelihoods going and supporting their community, which I think is really important.”

Unlike Bruno, Bove is uncertain that solving climate change is sufficient to save the coral reefs. Even after we hit net-zero emissions, corals will still face threats like disease, habitat loss, and pollution.

“I wish it was as easy as if we took away the heat, the corals would be dandy,” she said.

Shaver, too, recognizes that restoration on its own is not the solution. “It is not going to be our silver bullet to this. That is going to be the reduction of climate change-causing greenhouse gases,” she said. She insists that we must stop climate change, protect reefs from local stressors, and restore them to accelerate their bounceback—and we can pursue all three without detracting from any.

But both Bove and Bruno fear that detraction and distraction is already afoot. In Florida, for example, Governor Ron DeSantis is pouring millions of dollars into coral restoration while scrubbing climate change from the state’s laws; in Australia, the government is spending billions of dollars to protect coral reefs but ranks among the world’s worst in climate change mitigation.

“It’s pure greenwashing,” Bruno said.

If Earth warms by 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial temperatures, the IPCC says that 70% to 90% of the world’s coral will disappear.

To be clear, Bruno doesn’t suspect most coral restoration scientists of greenwashing. Quite the contrary—he commends them as being “good-hearted people doing the best they can.” He maintains, however, that restoration is not an appropriate response.

“It’s like, we’re all panicking… It’s not appropriate to the threat, but we’re just doing something,” he said. On that, the factions in coral ecology may never agree.

As for the ultimate fate of coral reefs? Nobody I spoke to thinks corals will go extinct. Some of the more sensitive species might. Perhaps they’ll be replaced with algae, sponges, bacteria, seaweeds, and the heat-tolerant coral species.

Next century’s reefs certainly won’t look like they do today, just like today’s reefs don’t look like they did in 1950. The question we face now is how much change we’re willing to accept, how much heat we’re willing to add.

The good news is that here, we have consensus—and humans have agency. While scientists disagree on the nitty-gritty, they’re in lockstep for the first priority: To salvage the coral reefs as we know them, we have to stop climate changeand we have to do it now.

Without that, the corals are cooked.

These photographs first appeared in Atmos Volume 09: Kinship with the headline “Coral Chorus”.

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