New research points once again to the urgent need for ocean sanctuaries to protect coral reef biodiversity and fight climate change.
“Global warming is the number one threat to coral reefs right now,“ says Andrea Grottoli, a professor in earth sciences at the Ohio State University.
Grottoli is co-author of a recent study published in the journal Global Change Biology. Grottoli and her co-authors are arguing for increased protections for coral reefs through turning large sections of oceans into sanctuaries.
“Coral reefs are an essential ecosystem on our planet,” Grottoli said. “Coral reefs are really important for humans in that they provide protection to coastlines from erosion and storms, and they’re essential for certain services like tourism and other parts of the economy.”
These sanctuaries are hard to imagine at scale—they’re called mesoscale sanctuaries because they can span thousands of miles, often across international boundaries. But Grottoli says that has to happen to protect these import ecosystems.
“So when we think about coral reef conservation, we can’t limit ourselves to arbitrary geographic boundaries,’ she said.
Reefs play vital roles in the earth’s oceans. Although they make up less than 0.1 percent of the surface area in oceans, approximately 30 percent of all marine life rely on reefs either for food or shelter—often both.
Climate change has been taking a toll on reef systems, though as rising sea temperatures cause coral bleaching, which can lead to mass mortality rates—coral are animals and bleaching exposes the animals’ skeletons.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, between 2014 and 2017 approximately 75 percent of the world’s tropical coral reefs experienced heat-stress severe enough to trigger bleaching—enough to kill off 30 percent.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the largest on the planet, has experienced high levels of bleaching. Data released earlier this week found a sixth mass bleaching event occurred earlier this year, the fourth since 2016. The newest findings revealed that 91 percent of the Great Barrier Reef coral has experienced bleaching.
The Great Barrier Reef’s waters began warming last December—summer in Australia—and exceeded “historical summer maximums.” According to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the reef experienced three distinct heat waves throughout the summer until early last month, which increased “thermal stress” throughout the reef’s central and northern areas.
“The surveys confirm a mass bleaching event, with coral bleaching observed at multiple reefs in all regions,” the report noted. “This is the fourth mass bleaching event since 2016 and the sixth to occur on the Great Barrier Reef since 1998.”
“To give our reef a fighting chance, we must deal with the number one problem: climate change. No amount of funding will stop these bleaching events unless we drive down our emissions this decade,” Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, said earlier this year.
The Ohio State University research says a “continuum of conservation” would be of great benefit to reefs. The biggest challenge is the cooperation between various governments where waters overlap.
Grottoli says education is key, calling for more efforts and transdisciplinary approaches wherever possible.
“People who understand coral reefs, and who understand the value of coral reefs, are much more likely to do something to help protect them,” she said. “If you don’t know anything about coral, and you’ve never seen one, how can you have any empathy or feel any connection to that ecosystem?”
U.S. marine conservation efforts
Last month, the U.S. announced the designation of three national marine sanctuaries as part of its Indigenous-led conservation efforts. Proposed sanctuaries include Chumash Heritage NMS, the proposed Lake Ontario NMS, as well as providing additional protection to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument by designating it as a national marine sanctuary.
President Biden re-established the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resistance Area on his first day in office, which will proceed via a partnership between the U.S. government and Indigenous Peoples of the region.
The U.S. also recently partnered with Palau on marine conservation efforts The Indo-Pacific Marine Protected Area is focused on protection and conservation throughout the Pacific Islands Region, “establishing a Sister Site Agreement between the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa and the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, as well as a framework for broader Indo-Pacific regional cooperation on MPA issues,” according to the State Department.
Future marine sanctuaries and monuments could soon be on the way. According to the State Department, it is launching a working group or commission to evaluate naming practices for future sanctuaries and monuments, specifically the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
A campaign launched last year called for protecting 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. It pulled in support from more than 70 countries. Research, published in the journal Nature, backed up the campaign. It found that protecting 30 percent of oceans would restore biodiversity and provide a rather “cheap” solution to climate change by reducing seafloor emissions as a result of trawling. Currently, seven percent of oceans are protected, and less than three percent are highly protected from fishing and other industries.