Global Coral Reefs – Crisis Expedition Assessment
In Ocean Geographic Magazine
by Sheree Marris
Published in the July, 2022 issue
Over half a billion people rely upon coral reefs for their for their livelihoods, food and culture. The health of entire economies and communities are built around coral reefs.
Covering less than 1% of our blue planet, what corals lack in size, they make up for in diversity and their ability to capture people’s imagination. These ‘glamazons’ of the underwater world have the highest species diversity of any other ecosystem on the planet, boasting around 25 percent of all the world’s marine life. Their breathtaking beauty and colour make them the pin-ups for tourism campaigns, stars of blockbuster animations, and a regular on bucket lists.
Delve a little deeper and you will see there is more to corals than their looks. These marine habitats are incredibly valuable, providing a number of vital ecosystem services. Many animals rely on coral reefs for food, shelter and a place to breed and raise young. We are also dependent on them.
Over half a billion people rely upon coral reefs for their livelihoods, food and culture. The health of entire economies and communities are built around coral reefs. They protect coastlines from storms, act as a filtration system keeping coastal waters clean and attract tourism. Our health is also dependent on them. Coral reefs are a source of life-saving medicines, treating cancer, heart disease and provide potential cures for conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
And unless you have been hiding under a rock, or a bleached coral bommie, you would be frightfully aware that things are not looking good for coral reefs. Globally, these critical marine ecosystems are in crisis. They are being degraded and decimated at an unprecedented rate, and the statistics are frightening.
Often called the ‘rainforests of the sea’, some coral reefs are disappearing twice as fast as tropical rainforests. Half of the world’s coral reefs have been lost in the last 40 years. Live coral cover in the Indo-Pacific has declined by 40 percent, the Great Barrier Reef 50 percent and a staggering 80 percent from the Caribbean.
Overfishing, coastal development, pollution and run-off and are just some of the challenges we have been and still are, throwing at these fragile ecosystems. Climate change has the most devastating impact, increasing the severity and frequency of storm and flood events, and warming of waters. With rising ocean temperatures, bleaching events are becoming more common and intense, and coral reefs are struggling to survive.
To address the coral reef crisis, the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation (KSLOF) launched the ambitious Global Reef Expedition. It has been a mammoth decade-long commitment to understand the health of the world’s reefs and the strategies needed to protect them.
Like the interconnected partnerships that help reefs thrive, collaboration was key to the expedition. ‘There are no hard borders for the waters of the ocean or its inhabitants. It is our duty to work collectively to protect and restore ocean health. We hope that collective knowledge and continuous dialogue will translate into actionable steps and practical solutions to promote ocean health.’ – HRH Princess Hala bint Khaled bin Sultan – Director KSLOF
It brought together scientists, educators, conservationists, governments and local communities to survey and map coral reefs from the Red Sea through the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, making it the largest coral reef research mission in history. The findings have now been published, revealing for the first time, the extent of the coral reef crisis.
Over 65,000 square kilometres of coastal marine habitats were mapped and surveyed in 16 countries and territories across the globe. This accounted for over one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs. Using new technology pioneered by the expedition team, it combined high-resolution satellite imagery with data collected in the field to create the world’s most comprehensive standardized data set for coral reefs.
Across the 1,108 coral reefs examined, the expedition team were reminded of the stark reality of the global climate crises. Renée Carlton, a Marine Ecologist at KSLOF who was charged with the monumental task of reporting on the data commented that ‘No matter how remote you were there is no hiding from climate change. In the Chagos Archipelago, one of the most remote locations, we were the first to see the start of the one of the world’s largest global bleaching events that occurred in 2015.’
In addition to the nearly 8,600 benthic surveys, over 8,300 fish surveys were conducted in 1,200 locations were conducted to help determine the status of the world’s reef fish populations. Sadly, nearly every country showed signs of overfishing with fewer and smaller fish. This is problematic for the reef systems, and the people who depend upon them for their livelihoods and food.
The report is providing valuable baseline data on the status of the world’s reefs at a critical point in time, including factors that enhance coral’s ability to survive in rapidly changing world and how the information can be used to develop science-based solutions to conservation. It notes that swift action is needed to address climate change and overfishing in order to combat the coral reef crisis. However, it also identified management efforts, such as reducing pollution and establishing marine protected areas, that can be taken to spare local reefs from the worst impacts of these global problems.
There are glimmers of hope. The expedition did encounter vibrant reefs with high coral cover and thriving reef fish communities, a sign that given the right conditions, some reefs may be able to survive into the future.
Now that the Global Reef Expedition is complete, HRH Prince Khaled bin Sultan al Saud founder of the KSLOF, who spearheaded and funded the campaign, hopes the knowledge gained from this research mission will continue to be used to leave a lasting legacy of ocean conservation, “so our children, and our children’s children, can also experience the beauty and wonder of a coral reef.”
The data, scientific tools, and library of education resources developed are being made freely available. And they are already being used on a range of projects globally that will build on this comprehensive and critical body of work to help coral reefs.
“This Expedition amassed a treasure-trove of data that is now being used for coral reef conservation. Several countries, including The Bahamas, Jamaica, Fiji, and the Cook Islands, used data collected on the Expedition to enact new conservation measures, such as marine protected areas and fishery closures, to protect their reefs,” said Alexandra Dempsey, the Director of Science Management at KSLOF.
World Reef Map, a web-based global interactive map has been developed, allowing users to explore all the surveyed coral reefs. NASA is using the data to train their supercomputers to map in high-resolution the rest of the world’s coral reefs from space and scientists at the University of Miami are applying the information to model factors that contribute to the health and resilience of coral reefs.
Thanks to the vision and efforts of the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation’s Global Reef Expedition, coral reefs around the world now have a brighter future. This is only the beginning. The data captured provides valuable baseline data on the status of the world’s reefs at a critical point in time, and key insights on how to save coral reefs in a rapidly changing world, enhance their ability to survive, and develop science-based solutions to conservation.
The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation
Inspired by a love for the ocean, the not-for-profit The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, was founded by HRH Prince Khaled bin Sultan Abdulaziz Al-Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It aims to preserve, protect and restore the world’s oceans and aquatic resources through research, education and outreach. Their mission is to protect and restore ocean health by providing science-based solutions. They work to make ocean conservation a high priority and empower people to keep ocean resources healthy and sustainable.
For more information livingoceansfoundation.org/