Climate change top threat to world's coral reefs

Posted on 06 December 2004
WWF Marine Officer, Sangeeta Mangubhai admires a large, and very old, porites coral that survived bleaching in Fiji's Kadavu.
© WWF / Cat HOLLOWAY
Buenos Aires, Argentina – More than two thirds of the world's reefs are severely damaged or under risk of further degradation, and climate change remains the greatest long-term threat to corals, according to the 2004 edition of Status of Coral Reefs of the World.

The report comes as delegates gather in Buenos Aires for the 10th Conference of the Parties (CoP 10) to the Convention on Climate Change.
 
The report compiles the findings of 240 experts from 96 countries, and was published today in Washington by over twenty organizations, including WWF.

It says 20 per cent of the world's reefs are so damaged that they are unlikely to recover, while another 50 per cent could collapse. If not tackled, global warming could mean their death sentence.

As climate change is warming the sea and making it more acid, scientists predict that massive bleaching events, such as the one which damaged or destroyed 16 per cent of the world's coral reefs in 1998, will be a regular occurrence in 50 years time.

Bleaching happens when warmer waters cause corals to eject the vital algae that live within their tissues. This can kill or weaken the reefs.

Similarly, increasing concentrations of CO2 dissolved in sea water make it more acid, which slows calcification — the building of coral skeletons.

Coral experts say that calcification is likely to be reduced by up to 40 per cent in corals when there is a doubling of CO2 emissions, which is predicted to happen by the middle of this century. 
 
At CoP 10, WWF is urging governments to keep global average temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

Scientists say that failing to keep within this limit could increase extreme weather events and the loss of habitats and species. 
 
"Governments have the immense responsibility to act now and keep the world from warming anymore than 2 degrees Celsius in order to limit the damage from global warming to people and nature. We know that going beyond that mark would for instance wipe out coral reefs in many parts of the world," said Jennifer Morgan, Director of WWF's Global Climate Change Programme, and Head of WWF's delegation at CoP 10.

"There is absolutely no time to lose, the dithering must stop!" 
 
At CoP 10, WWF will call on governments to announce new measures to quickly and deeply reduce their CO2 emissions, the main greenhouse gas.

Now that the Kyoto Protocol has entered into force, they have no excuse in delaying further action that would limit global warming, and should start discussing even more ambitious targets, the global conservation organization says.
WWF also believes that countries such as the United States and Australia, which have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, should still commit to binding emissions caps domestically to demonstrate that they are taking this problem seriously. 
 
"To save coral reefs, governments must reduce CO2 emissions quickly, but also create marine protected areas to help ensure that corals are protected from all threats," said Dr Simon Cripps, Director of WWF's Global Marine Programme.
 
"Coral Reefs are worth more than US$30 billion annually, we can't afford to lose their social and economic value because of climate change or any other threat." 
 
Status of the Coral Reefs of the World 2004 shows that reefs that have recently been protected are improving, providing some hope for the future of reefs worldwide.  
 
NOTES: 
 
1. The 10th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 6 to 17 December 2004. 
 
2. According to the 2004 Status of Coral Reefs of the World, the main threats to the world's coral reefs are:  

* Coral bleaching
 — caused by rising sea temperatures from global climate change;
* Rising levels of CO2 — dissolved in seawater, this will reduce coral calcification;
* Diseases, Plagues and Invasives — all cause damage and linked to human disturbance;
* Over-fishing and destructive fishing — bomb and cyanide fishing, and fishing beyond sustainable yields, destroys reefs; 
* Sediments — from poor land use, deforestation, and dredging. They smother corals;
* Nutrients and chemical pollution — carried with sediments, sewage, and industry wastes. They stress corals; 
* Coastal development — dredging, land clearing, building ports, airports, harbours; reclaiming coral reefs; mining of coral rock and sand beyond sustainable limits;
* Rising poverty and growing populations — all put more pressures on reef resources beyond sustainability;
* Poor management capacity — many countries have few trained personnel and equipment for management, raising awareness, enforcement and monitoring; most Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are not managed effectively; and 
* Poor political will — coral reef solutions require strong political will and governance of resources; the international community should assist with Integrated Oceans Governance 

3. The reefs the most at risk of severe future degradation are in East Africa, South, South-East, and East Asia, and throughout the Caribbean.
 
4. In the Caribbean, yearly economic losses of up to US$870 million will occur by 2015 if nothing is done to halt the current decline in the region's coral reefs. 

For further information:
Martin Hiller, Communications Manager
WWF Climate Change Programme
Tel: +41 79 347 22 56
E-Mail: mhiller@wfint.org
 
Peter Bryant, Communications Manager
WWF Global Marine Programme
Tel: +41 22 364 9028,
E-Mail: pbryant@wwfint.org
 
Olivier van Bogaert, Senior Press Officer
WWF International
Tel: +41 79 477 35 72
E-Mail: ovanbogaert@wwfint.org 
 
WWF Marine Officer, Sangeeta Mangubhai admires a large, and very old, porites coral that survived bleaching in Fiji's Kadavu.
© WWF / Cat HOLLOWAY Enlarge