Coral Reef Ecosystems: Moving the Conservation Needle in a Positive Direction

Earthzine’s 2017 quarterly theme on coral reefs will highlight exciting and innovative work to move the needle of conservation in a positive direction—from expeditions to explore deep-sea corals to the declaration of 2018 as the third International Year of the Reef.

The forereef benthic community at Swains Island in American Samoa. Image Credit: NOAA, James Morioka

The third, most damaging and longest global coral bleaching event on record WAS DECLARED in 2015 and just recently announced BY NOAA likely to be over as widespread coral bleaching is no longer occurring in all three ocean basins – Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. Sadly, localized bleaching continues to plague reefs. During the event, more than 70 percent of reefs experienced prolonged high temperatures that can cause bleaching. U.S. coral reefs were hit hardest, with two years of severe bleaching in Florida and Hawaii, three in the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands, and four in Guam. While considerable damage was done, it’s not too late for corals. But it’s not too late. During IEEE Earthzine’s second quarterly theme on coral reef ecosystems, you’ll see how scientists and concerned citizens are working to conserve coral reef ecosystems and the communities and economies that depend on them.

Healthy coral reefs are one of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. Covering less than 1 percent of the planet, they are home to 25 percent of marine species. Upwards of 40 million people rely on coral reefs for the fish and shellfish they eat. Coral reefs also provide billions of dollars in other economic and environmental services, such coastal protection, tourism, recreation and pharmaceuticals.

Coral reefs face serious threats, mainly from unsustainable fishing impacts, pollution from the land, and warming temperatures and increasingly acidic ocean waters associated with climate change. Coral reefs will continue to change because of these pressures, but nature perseveres. The actions we take now will help ensure that coral reefs and the goods and services they provide, live on.

There are many exciting things to report on this front. For instance, in Maui, a community came together to protect herbivorous fish that eat algae and control its growth on the reef. Now, several years later, algal cover is down, the numbers of fish are up, and the reef is making a comeback.

Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) colony in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Elkhorn coral is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Credit: NOAA

In Puerto Rico, more than 40 coffee farms are part of a shade-grown coffee crop initiative that tackles the region’s sediment and agricultural runoff issues. Instead of growing coffee on bare hillsides, forests ideal for shade-grown coffee are being restored. Communities in American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are planting rain gardens along the coasts and revegetating hillsides with native plants to reduce the sediment and pollutants that reaches their reefs.

Additionally, efforts are underway to grow individual corals in nurseries to restore damaged ecosystems. In the past, coral restoration took place in response to acute disturbances, such as a ship grounding or large storm. However, coral nurseries are now increasingly used to address overall reef decline. In fact, together with our partners, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program has transplanted tens of thousands of coral fragments grown in nurseries to improve reefs in Florida, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico over the past decade.

Over the next few months during my time as guest editor, I look forward to highlighting some of the exciting and innovative work underway to  move the needle of conservation in a positive direction—from expeditions to explore deep-sea corals to the declaration of 2018 as the third International Year of the Reef. We also will dive deeper into issues impacting corals on national and international scales, as well as the many exciting collaborations happening to address local stressors.

I am always encouraged by the creativity and commitment the people engaged in coral reef conservation bring to solving complex challenges and advancing the science behind coral reef conservation and management. I hope you will be too.  

Did you know:
Coral reefs are essential to healthy coasts and vibrant economies, playing a critical role in everything from protecting lives and property to supporting thousands of businesses.
$3.4 Billion Value
The total economic value of coral reef services for the U.S.—including fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection—is more than $3.4 billion each year.
500 Million People
Worldwide, more than 500 million people depend on coral reefs for food, income, coastal protection, and more.
Powerful Shoreline Protection
Healthy coral reefs absorb 97 perfect of a wave’s energy, which buffers shorelines from currents, waves, and storms, helping to prevent loss of life and property damage. Coastlines protected by coral reefs are also more stable in terms of erosion than those without.
25 Protected Species
Under the Endangered Species Act, there are 22 coral species listed as threatened and three listed as endangered. The primary threats to coral reefs are climate change, pollution, and impacts from unsustainable fishing.

Jennifer Koss is director of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, and guest editor for Earthzine’s quarterly theme, Coral Reefs.

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