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People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.

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Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution

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Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching

Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

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Many countries ‘unable to save reefs’

22
Jul 2008

An international team of scientists has found coral reef conservation in key regions of the world faces serious risk of failure under climate change.

Many countries and communities which are highly dependent on marine harvests or tourism from their coral reefs may be unable to save those reefs from the likely impacts of climate change with their current conservation measures and capacity, the researchers say in an editorial in the journal Conservation Letters.

Sustaining coral reefs, along with the goods and services they provide to the people who depend on them, it will require two things – the ability to predict the risk of extreme climate effects, and the ability of the affected human societies to adapt and to change the way they protect and manage their marine environment.

However the team, led by Tim McClanahan from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Kenya, and Dr Josh Cinner from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University, Australia, also proposes a novel approach that could help societies improve the way they cope with and adapt to changes in the marine environment.

“Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events, and will profoundly influence ecosystems and the communities that depend on them – coral bleaching and category-5 cyclones are examples,” Dr Cinner says. “When the ocean warms it can play havoc, causing entire reefs to die or to take many years to recover.”

“Sustaining coral reefs, along with the goods and services they provide to the people who depend on them, it will require two things – the ability to predict the risk of extreme climate effects, and the ability of the affected human societies to adapt and to change the way they protect and manage their marine environment.”

The researchers’ new approach involves assessing the risks of climate change on the world’s coral reefs which takes into account the likelihood of extreme events affecting particular areas. This is combined with a method of assessing how able local communities or national governments are to adjust the way they protect and manage reefs in response to the risks.

The study spans the sciences of oceanography, environmental science, sociology and economics to assess how 29 communities in 5 countries in the West Indian Ocean may cope with climate change. On the whole, they found, most conservation strategies in the West Indian Ocean are poorly prepared to cope with the expected impacts.

The researchers found that the scale of the threat from climate change varies significantly from place to place – and that some places are more likely to be able to cope or to adapt their management than others.

“For example, Kenyan reefs are susceptible to bleaching, suggesting that they are unlikely to sustain a high-quality tourist experience. Yet Kenya has a moderately large marine protected area fisheries closure system that is highly dependent on tourism. The sustainability of this protection strategy under climate change scenarios is questionable,” the team observe.

“In Tanzania, some sites generally have higher adaptive capacity and lower environmental susceptibility, suggesting that investment in more protection could be effective. However, Tanzania currently lacks an effective system of large fisheries closures, protecting less than 2% of its reefs from fishing.

“Most sites in Mauritius and Madagascar have low environmental susceptibility and consequently are expected to fare better than reefs in the rest of the region – yet currently less than 1% of the reefs in these countries are protected.”

In places where reefs are at high risk of climate impacts, and governments lack the ability to change management, it may be helpful to pass more of the responsibility for looking after reefs to local communities who often have a great interest in protecting their own resources, the team suggest. But doing so effectively will require considerable investments in poverty alleviation and alternative livelihoods.

“It is essential that where reefs are at high risk, development strategies do not make local communities or industries more dependent on reef-based resources,” they cautioned.

The team suggests that the outlook for coral reefs in the region could be improved by a regional approach to coral reef management that integrates development and conservation based on likely long-term outcomes.

Closing reefs to fishing is only likely to work well in areas facing low impacts and with good ability to adapt.  In other areas, local communities will need to be more involved in pragmatic measures to protect their own resources.  These measures will require building the capacity of communities to cope with change and donor assistance focused on reducing dependence on coral reef resources.

 

More information:
Josh Cinner, CoECRS and JCU, +61 7 4781 6751 or +61 0431 036 393
Tim McClanahan, Wildlife Conservation Society, +254 725 546 822
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4222
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 7 4781 4822

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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au