Saving coral reefs could benefit land ecosystems, too

New research from Australia shows that bolder actions to protect coral reefs from the effects of global warming will benefit all ecosystems, including those on land.

According to two researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, the world’s reefs will disappear by 2070 if climate change continues on its current path.

To prevent this from happening, Professor Tiffany Morrison and Professor Terry Hughes call for a new, holistic approach to safeguarding coral reefs, one that focuses on land as well as the ocean.

“We must take a new, bolder approach to tackle the underlying causes of coral reef decline,” lead author Morrison said. “This means fixing the causes on a global, as well as local, scale – both in the sea and on land.”

For example, the researchers suggest that Australia should replace coal-fired power with renewable energy sources, develop land-based aquaculture and restore or rehabilitate terrestrial vegetation and wetlands in the 425,000-square-kilometre catchment of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Done strategically, these actions can reduce global emissions, capture carbon, curb agricultural runoff onto coastal reefs while also enhancing people’s livelihoods and food security,” she said.

Morrison and Hughes also argue in their article that current approaches to coral reef conservation are failing because they mainly focus on protecting local biodiversity on reefs and trying to restore damaged corals.

“Attempts to grow corals in aquaria or underwater nurseries are futile unless we address the major threats,” said Hughes. “Reefs won’t disappear if we tackle the root cause of their decline; global carbon emissions need to be slashed to 45% of 2010 levels by 2030.”

To achieve this, the authors call for a bolder, scaled-up approach to the stewardship of land and sea, one that focuses initially on coral reefs given their key role for marine fish species and humans alike. Some 400 million people depend on reefs for work, food and protection from waves, storms and floods.

“What we’re suggesting is not impossible,” the authors said. “Countries such as Costa Rica, states such as California and cities such as Copenhagen have all taken up initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions and provide alternative economic opportunities that set powerful examples for the rest of the world.”

Image credit: Mark Priest

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