By James Ochieng

Coral reefs occur in more than 100 countries and territories and whilst they cover only 0.2% of the seafloor, they support at least 25% of marine species and underpin their safety whilst providing coastal protection, well-being, food and economic security of hundreds of millions of people.

Despite this, approximately 14 per cent of the world’s coral since 2009 have been lost, the Status of Coral Reefs of the World 2020 report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) reveals.

The analysis which examined 10 coral reef-bearing regions around the world showed that coral bleaching events caused by elevated sea surface temperatures (SSTs) were the main driver of coral loss, including an acute event in 1998 that is estimated to have killed eight percent of the world’s corals- more than all the coral that is currently living on reefs in the Caribbean or Red Sea and Gulf of Aden regions.

Coral reefs are among the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet to anthropogenic pressures, including global threats from climate change and ocean acidification, and local impacts from land-based pollution such as input of nutrients and sediments from agriculture, marine pollution, and overfishing and destructive fishing practices.

“Since 2009 we have lost more coral, worldwide, than all the living coral in Australia. We are running out of time: we can reverse losses, but we have to act now. At the upcoming climate conference in Glasgow and biodiversity conference in Kunming, decision-makers have an opportunity to show leadership and save our reefs, but only if they are willing to take bold steps. We must not leave future generations to inherit a world without coral,” Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) said during the launch of the report.

“This study is the most detailed analysis to date on the state of the world’s coral reefs, and the news is mixed. There are clearly unsettling trends toward coral loss, and we can expect these to continue as warming persists,” said Dr Paul Hardisty, CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

“Despite this, some reefs have shown a remarkable ability to bounce back, which offers hope for the future recovery of degraded reefs. A clear message from the study is that climate change is the biggest threat to the world’s reefs, and we must all do our part by urgently curbing global greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating local pressures.”

The report also found that many of the world’s coral reefs remain resilient and can recover if conditions allow, providing hope for the long-term health of coral reefs if immediate steps are taken to stabilize emissions to curb future warming.

Additionally, the report noted that during the last decade the interval between mass coral bleaching events has been insufficient to allow coral reefs to fully recover, but some recovery was observed in 2019 with coral reefs regaining 2% of the coral cover.

This, according to the report indicates that coral reefs are still resilient and if pressures on these critical ecosystems ease, then they have the capacity to recover, potentially within a decade, to the healthy, flourishing reefs that were prevalent pre-1998.