Fifth of corals dead: only emission cuts can save the rest, says IUCN

10 December 2008 | International news release

The world has lost 19 percent of its coral reefs, according to the 2008 global update of the world’s reef status.

The report, released by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, of which IUCN is a member, shows if current trends in carbon dioxide emissions continue, many of the remaining reefs may be lost over the next 20 to 40 years. This will have alarming consequences for some 500 million people who depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods. 

Climate change is considered the biggest threat to coral reefs today. The main climate threats, such as increasing sea surface temperatures and seawater acidification, are being exacerbated by other threats including overfishing, pollution and invasive species.

“If nothing changes, we are looking at a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide in less than 50 years,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Head of the IUCN Global Marine Programme, one of the organizations behind the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. “As this carbon is absorbed, the oceans will become more acidic, which is seriously damaging a wide range of marine life from corals to plankton communities and from lobsters to seagrasses.”

Encouragingly, 45 percent of the world’s reefs are currently healthy. Another sign of hope is the ability of some corals to recover after major bleaching events, caused by warming waters, and to adapt to climate change threats.

However, the report shows that, globally, the downward trend of recent years has not been reversed. Major threats in the last four years, including the Indian Ocean tsunami, more occurances of bleaching, outbreaks of coral diseases and ever-heavier human pressures, have slowed or reversed recovery of some coral reefs after the 1998 mass bleaching event.

“The report details the strong scientific consensus that climate change must be limited to the absolute minimum. If nothing is done to substantially cut emissions, we could effectively lose coral reefs as we know them, with major coral extinctions,” says Clive Wilkinson, Coordinator of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

Corals have a higher chance of survival in times of climate change if other stress factors related to human activity are minimized. Well-managed marine protected areas can also boost the health of coral reefs, but proper enforcement is difficult, especially in remote areas where the most pristine reefs are found.

“Ten years after the world’s biggest coral bleaching event, we know that reefs can recover given the chance. Unfortunately, impacts on the scale of 1998 will reoccur in the near future, and there’s no time to lose if we want to give reefs and people a chance to suffer as little as possible,” says Dr David Obura, Chair of the IUCN Climate Change and Coral Reefs working group and Director of the Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean Programme (CORDIO) in East Africa.

A new report on the state of Indian Ocean coral reefs, launched today by CORDIO, an organisation aligned with the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, states an overall trend of continued degradation, only alleviated by signs of recovery in some areas.

“With this report, the far-reaching degradation of Indian Ocean coral reefs has become evident,” says Olof Linden of the CORDIO network and Professor at the World Maritime University (WMU), Malmö, Sweden. “To save coral reefs, we must focus on helping corals to adapt to climate change and on diverting people away from destructive practices such as overfishing.”

For more information please contact:
Sarah Horsley, IUCN Media Relations, m +41 79 528 3486, e sarah.horsley@iucn.org
Borjana Pervan, IUCN Communications, m +41 79 857 4072, e borjana.pervan@iucn.org
James Oliver, IUCN Global Marine Programme, t +41 78 6155857, e james.oliver@iucn.org

Benefits of coral reefs
Coral reefs provide food, coastal protection, building materials and income from tourism for half a billion mostly poor people. The fish they provide is their main source of protein; the reefs themselves have proved to be an effective natural barrier against storm surges; and diving tourism is an important source of income.