New analysis shows three-quarters of planet's coral reefs under threat

Posted: 23 February 2011

A new comprehensive analysis finds that 75 percent of the world's coral reefs are currently threatened by local and global pressures. For the first time, the analysis includes threats from climate change, including warming seas and rising ocean acidification.

The report shows that local pressures- such as overfishing, coastal development, and pollution- pose the most immediate and direct risks, threatening more than 60 percent of coral reefs today.

Reefs at risk

"Reefs at Risk Revisited," the most detailed assessment of threats to coral reefs ever undertaken, is being released by the World Resources Institute, along with the Nature Conservancy, the WorldFish Center, the International Coral Reef Action Network, Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, and the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Center, along with a network of more than 25 organizations.

"Local pressures - especially overfishing and destructive fishing - are causing many reefs to be degraded. Global pressures are leading to coral bleaching from rising sea temperatures and increasing ocean acidification from carbon dioxide pollution. According to the new analysis, if left unchecked, more than 90 percent of reefs will be threatened by 2030 and nearly all reefs will be at risk by 2050.

"Coral reefs are valuable resources for millions of people worldwide. Despite the dire situation for many reefs, there is reason for hope," said Lauretta Burke, senior associate at WRI and a lead author of the report. "Reefs are resilient, and by reducing the local pressures we can buy time as we find global solutions to preserve reefs for future generations."

Protected areas

The report includes multiple recommendations to better protect and manage reefs, including through marine protected areas. The analysis shows that more than one-quarter of reefs are already encompassed in a range of parks and reserves, more than any other marine habitat. However, only six percent of reefs are in protected areas that are effectively managed.

"Well managed marine protected areas are one of the best tools to safeguard reefs," said Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a lead author of the report. "At their core, reefs are about people as well as nature: ensuring stable food supplies, promoting recovery from coral bleaching, and acting as a magnet for tourist dollars. We need apply the knowledge we have to shore up existing protected areas, as well as to designate new sites where threats are highest, such as the populous hearts of the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, East Africa and the Middle East."

Healthy coral reef
A healthy reef on Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, retains the three-dimensional structure that was once typical of coral reefs across the Caribbean and that provided shelter to a vast diversity of Caribbean fishes and other species. The coral species that are dominant in this view - staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) - are both critically endangered. Photo © Andy Bruckner/NOAA Fisheries

Reefs offer multiple benefits to people and the economy - providing food, sustaining livelihoods, supporting tourism, protecting coasts, and even helping to prevent disease. According the report, more than 275 million people live in the direct vicinity (30 km/18 miles) of coral reefs. In more than 100 countries and territories, coral reefs protect 150,000 km (over 93,000 miles) of shorelines, helping defend coastal communities and infrastructure against storms and erosion.

For the first time, the report identifies the 27 nations most socially and economically vulnerable to coral reef degradation and loss. Among these, the nine most vulnerable countries are: Haiti, Grenada, Philippines, Comoros, Vanuatu, Tanzania, Kiribati, Fiji, and Indonesia.

"The people at greatest risk are those who depend heavily on threatened reefs, and who have limited capacity to adapt to the loss of the valuable resources and services reefs provide," said Allison Perry, project scientist at the WorldFish Center and a lead author. "For highly vulnerable nations - including many island nations - there is a pressing need for development efforts to reduce dependence on reefs and build adaptive capacity, in addition to protecting reefs from threats."

The report is an update of "Reefs at Risk," released by WRI in 1998 and  uses the latest data and satellite information to map coral reefs- including a reef map with a resolution 64 times higher than the original report.