Avoiding coral reef collapse

Researchers say that although coral reefs are in decline, sustained local and global efforts can prevent their collapse. 

That’s according to findings published in last week’s edition of Cell Press journal Current Biology, based on analysis of reef dynamics and the latest climate models. 

“People benefit by reefs having a complex structure – a little like a Manhattan skyline but underwater,” said Peter Mumby of The University of Queensland and University of Exeter. “Coral reefs provide nooks and crannies for thousands of species and provide the habitat needed to sustain productive reef fisheries. They’re also great fun to visit as a snorkeller or diver. If we carry on the way we have been, the ability of reefs to provide benefits to people will seriously decline.” 

The researchers drew on hundreds of scientific studies to develop computer models of Caribbean reefs.  

Mr. Mumby explained: “Reefs are mostly built by living coral but the limestone structures they build are naturally eroded by other animals and plants, such as sponges. In a healthy ecosystem, reefs grow faster than they erode and the reef is able to provide habitat for thousands of fish and to support fisheries.  

“However, human impacts including pollution, overfishing of parrotfishes and climate change tip the balance towards erosion, meaning that the reef habitat could erode away leaving a flat, barren habitat in its place”. 

The research team, which included scientists from Australia, Mexico, UK, Israel, USA and Germany, investigated whether it was possible for Caribbean reefs to keep growing for the next 70 years. They found that the reefs would keep growing if managed properly. 

Professor Roberto Iglesias-Prieto, of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, said: “We were relieved to find that it is possible to maintain reefs but it requires countries to take the management of their reefs seriously and global action to address climate change.”  

Mr. Mumby explained: “Some people have felt that coral reef management might be futile given the problems posed by climate change, such as coral bleaching. But our research reveals that control of fishing and pollution is essential to maintain reefs and that it can have a very meaningful impact.” 

Mr. Mumby and his colleagues also stress the importance of reef function, in addition to reef diversity. Among the functions of reefs are to provide habitat for fisheries and provide a natural breakwater to reduce the size of waves reaching the shore. Hundreds of millions of people depend directly on reefs for their food, livelihoods and even building materials.  

“If people are to continue being able to fish, snorkel and attract tourists to reefs, then they have to take great care of the ecosystem,” said Emma Kennedy, a PhD student that developed the models at the University of Exeter.  

The research took place in the Caribbean under the EU-funded project Future of Reefs in a Changing Environment.  

The researchers drew on hundreds of scientific studies to develop computer models of Caribbean reefs.  

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