Coral Reef Symposium Brings Call to Action on Turning Science into Policy

EarthzineOcean Stewardship 2016, Original, Themed Articles

Highlights from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

By Robert H. Richmond, Ph.D.

Research Professor and Director

Kewalo Marine Laboratory

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Honolulu, Hawaii

Healthy coral at Lizard Island, Australia. Image Credit: Dorothea Bender-Champ for ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Healthy coral at Lizard Island, Australia. Image Credit: Dorothea Bender-Champ for ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

More than 2,500 people from 97 nations participated in the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in June in Honolulu, Hawaii.

åÊThe ICRS, sanctioned by the International Society for Reef Studies, is the largest gathering of coral reef scientists and practitioners and has been held every four years since 1969. This was the largest such meeting to date, and included resource managers, policymakers, elected and traditional leaders, educators, lawyers, economists, students and a variety of stakeholders. åÊ

In addition to the regular presentations that included more than 1,500 talks and 700 posters, there were 45 special workshops and town hall meetings that covered a diversity of issues from community-based conservation initiatives to the effects of sunscreens and personal care products on coral reef organisms. There was also a Leaders‰Ûª Summit, attended by the presidents of the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, along with U.S. federal officials and a select group of scientists, policy experts and conservation practitioners. This summit reflected the key themes of the ICRS: Bridging science to policy and knowledge to action. The leaders and their staff developed a consensus ‰ÛÏCall to Action,‰Û with specific guidance on building a strong and effective science-to-policy bridge, and technical participants responded with an affirmation and commitment to move forward in the specifically identified areas of need.

The President of the Republic of Palau, His Excellency Tommy E. Remengesau, gave the opening keynote address and received a standing ovation for his leadership on coral reef and marine conservation efforts. Palau has been one of the ‰ÛÏbright spots‰Û and a role model for marine and environmental stewardship, and Remengesau spoke of their use of modern science and traditional ecological knowledge to support the establishment of the nation‰Ûªs waters as a shark sanctuary and 80 percent of their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as fully protected. This translates to 36 square kilometers of the world‰Ûªs oceans being protected for every Palauan.

‰Û÷The ocean is what sustains us.‰Ûª President Remengesau of Palau, the ICRS keynote speaker. Image Credit: ICRS/Instagram

‰Û÷The ocean is what sustains us.‰Ûª President Remengesau of Palau, the ICRS keynote speaker. Image Credit: ICRS/Instagram

For perspective, if U.S. President Obama were to expand protections in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to the full 200 mile U.S. EEZ, this would be the largest marine protected area in the world, yet represent only 0.005 square kilometers of protection for every American. A special 10th anniversary session was held on the value of the PMNM, and more than 1,500 of the scientists in attendance at the conference signed a letter of support for the expansion. Many marine scientists agree that the target for marine protection is 30 percent of the world‰Ûªs oceans, yet only 2 percent is presently under full protection.

While data presented in many of the sessions were daunting, and documented the plight of coral reefs and those who depend on them, there were numerous success stories and a sound basis for optimism that there was still a window of opportunity to act and change the present downward trajectory of reef health to one of recovery and resilience. This optimism was summed up by a quote from Dr. Terry Hughes, director of James Cook University‰Ûªs Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, that it was not yet time to write the obituary for coral reefs.

The impact of global climate change as the driver of the most extensive and longest coral bleaching events in recorded history was a center of discussion in numerous sessions and panels focused on responses and solutions to coral reef losses, with the clear message of urgency to reduce emissions tied to the burning of fossil fuels. Reports of 93 percent of the reefs in the iconic Northern Great Barrier Reef of Australia experiencing bleaching in 2016, documented that global level stressors are already superseding local stressors as the main driver of coral reef losses in many coral reef ecosystems. However, the chronic signal from stressors tied to local activities such as poor land-use practices, coastal pollution and overfishing are still causing extensive damage near populated areas and preventing recovery from bleaching events.

Bleached coral, Lizard Island. Image Credit: Dorothea Bender-Champ for ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Bleached coral, Lizard Island. Image Credit: Dorothea Bender-Champ for ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

The role of the social sciences in addressing coral reef health was highly visible, with a clear understanding that coral reef management means managing the human activities responsible for coral reef decline at local and global levels. Raising awareness and strengthening political will were identified as critical, as well as strengthening laws, regulatory frameworks and compliance if there is to be a legacy of vital coral reefs for the benefit of future generations.

The ICRS ended with a two-hour synthesis session on lessons learned, major challenges, emerging technologies and the opportunities to apply these to urgently needed solutions. åÊThe consensus was one of hope and optimism that the window of opportunity remains open, but that unless climate change is adequately and immediately addressed, the future of coral reefs will be bleak. A number of follow-up activities are already being planned and implemented, with the clear understanding that whatever we do that is good for coral reefs is good for all of humanity, as we all share the same home: Planet Earth. åÊ

More information on the conference and sessions is available online at sgmeet.com/icrs2016.