Coral polyps comprise a coral colony. (photo credit: Robert Richmond)

In a new study, released in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Marine Science, a team of international researchers explore the frontiers in natural and social science research—recommending actions that have the potential to build stronger support for reef management and improve the efficacy of conservation efforts. The scientists identify ways to more accurately diagnose stressors affecting reef health, approaches to dealing with those stressors, and finally, the social and political factors in effective governance of coral reefs.

Many scientific studies have documented the impact of losing the world’s coral reefs—estimates indicate that 200 million people globally could bear the costs of losing the valuable economic, cultural and ecological services corals provide.

Time to take action

“While emerging and additional research tools and results are of great value, we can’t afford to delay acting on what we already know,” said Robert Richmond, research professor and director at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Kewalo Marine Laboratory, who has studied reefs for 42 years. “We understand the root causes of coral reef losses and the actions that must be undertaken today. We have solutions available to us now that can turn things around before it’s too late.”

Just like blood tests devised to assess the health of a person, molecular biomarkers are produced by stressed corals and can be utilized to diagnose the key classes of stressors and their relative effect on the health of coral reefs. Richmond and co-authors recommend making this powerful tool more broadly available, including to developing areas where funding is limited.

The ‘gardening’ approach

Richmond and colleagues address the complexities of dealing with local stressors on reefs and addressing the impacts of global climate change. With limited resources, managers must often prioritize the locations and timing of interventions. Past studies have shown that corals from marginal habitats may already have populations and genotypes that have elevated resilience and resistance to stressors.

A healthy reef with associated high ecological, cultural and economic value. (photo credit: Robert Richmond)

“While there is the temptation for establishing and enforcing protection of reefs in pristine areas, the value of corals in marginal habitats should not be ignored,” the authors emphasize in the publication. “Such corals may end up making sizable contributions to the reefs of the future.”

Further, the authors encourage exploring direct intervention strategies to maximize the survival of reef corals over the next few decades. For example, to capitalize on the natural resilience of some coral species, heat-tolerant corals can be identified, propagated, and restored on affected reefs—a ‘gardening’ approach.

Community-government stewardship of coral reefs

Governments have a serious challenge in creating effective and genuine legislation to protect coral reefs. Richmond and co-authors indicate that much work remains to be done to engage properly and communicate with those closer to coral reefs—those who are the significant drivers of change and who have a real stake in ensuring their future survival. These engagements will often require the willingness to accept trade-offs between community livelihood needs and conservation goals, a strong emphasis on cross-generational environmental education, and training local users and officials in reef monitoring and peer-to-peer enforcement frameworks.

“Even in the face of clear challenges, I remain optimistic about the future of coral reefs,” says Richmond. “I have witnessed full recovery of severely damaged reefs in Palau following the 1998 mass bleaching event, and the willingness of Palau’s leaders and stakeholders to actively reduce local sources of reef stress is a model that can work here in Hawaiʻi and elsewhere.”

More coral reef news

—By Marcie Grabowski