[Editor's note: This Sunday, Dr. Rod Salm — the Conservancy’s Indo-Pacific marine science and strategies adviser — will speak at the Colorado Ocean Coalition’s Making WAVES Symposium alongside other marine conservation luminaries including Dr. Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Here’s Rod in his own words talking about the current state of coral conservation.]
Recently, coral reefs have been confronted by a new threat. Not rising water temperatures, not blast fishing — but rather, alarmism.
There’s a notion circulating — and its provocative nature has made it somewhat popular — that coral reefs are a lost cause. Certainly, many of Earth’s coral reefs are threatened. But I’ve recently returned from eight months in Micronesia and the Coral Triangle, where I worked alongside our field teams and partners. That experience told a different story: that some resilient reefs are capable of staging their own resistance against the specter of climate change.
Corals have varying levels of natural resilience. Particularly resilient corals are able to withstand higher levels of stress: they can withstand abnormal temperatures or intense sunlight for longer periods of time without bleaching or dying. And there are indications that selection is going on for such corals: they are surviving heat stress events to breed and repopulate the reefs with hardier, more heat-resistant strains.
It’s a phenomenon that’s long played a role in my coral conservation adventures, which have taken me from Mozambique to Oman, across the tropics, and now to focus on the reefs of the Indo-Pacific. In 1998, when a particularly devastating coral bleaching event killed 16 percent of the world’s tropical coral reefs, many scientists focused on the corals that had died. However, my team focused on the corals that had lived; we started investigating the science behind coral resilience.
Since then, we’ve developed a set of reef resilience principles that have helped hundreds of marine conservation managers focus on incorporating resilient coral communities into their protected areas. We do this because, when reefs are left alone, corals can often heal themselves from damage. In parts of Palau, for example, we’re seeing more and more crustose coralline algae — a hard pinkish alga that plays an important role in cementing loose rubble and providing a clean foundation for new coral life to settle and grow.
Reef resilience is particularly important now because reefs are increasingly threatened by warming seas, coral disease and acidification as well as anthropogenic — or human — stresses, such as overfishing, pollution and sedimentation. In the face of these escalating threats, it’s all the more crucial that we invest maximum management effort in those resilient reefs with the best chance of survival so that they can reproduce and provide the larvae needed to aid recovery of damaged areas. Happily, human threats provide us with another big reason why reefs aren’t a lost cause: we can change our behavior.
When I first traveled to Indonesia in 1980 to help the government launch its marine conservation program, I had to teach my counterparts to swim, snorkel and scuba dive before initiating them into field work. The only incentive they had in those days to do field work was their per diem allowance. It’s very different today. There is a cadre of 30-40-year-old Indonesians with advanced degrees in marine science, who are skilled divers and consummate field workers, who love their work. They will be the ones to lead change over the next decades, an era that will require us to shift our behaviors and practices.
And they have a foundation of success to build on. On my recent expedition to Raja Ampat, for example, we found many reefs placed under human protection tend to recover. The Misool Eco Resort partnered with local communities to form a no-take zone around nearby reefs six years ago; in the intervening time, fish life has significantly increased.
Examples like these make the case to both governments and local communities that sustainable reef management is in their best interest. In the geographies where we work with reefs, the political will to do this management has certainly increased. For example, the Coral Triangle Initiative and Micronesia Challenge are both uniting the governments of crucial Asia-Pacific nations in the mission to conserve coral reefs.
There’s a saying I rather like that goes, “If the perils of our time are unprecedented, then so are the opportunities.” Writing reefs off as dead might generate headlines, but coral Cassandras are skewing the facts and preventing crucial action from being taken. We can still save our world’s reefs and oceans—we just need to be smart about it.
[First image: Coral reefs in Wakatobi, Indonesia. First image credit: Rod Salm/TNC. Second image: The author (far right) as a young man in Mozambique. Second image credit: Rod Salm/TNC. Third image: Dr. Rod Salm. Third image credit: Mark Godfrey/TNC.]