CAIRNS, Australia – The somber tones of the didgeridoo, a native wind instrument of the continent’s aboriginal peoples, seemed a harbinger of the sobering warnings from scientists who opened a weeklong coral reef forum here Monday.
In his welcome remarks, aboriginal leader Seith Fourmile shared stories about their coastal traditions and expressed concern about the alarming trends that are threatening one of their major sources of livelihood.
“The planet does not care what happens to us; it’s just there. But we have to care about what we do to our planet because it’s our only home,” he said.
Some 2,000 delegates from 80 countries are attending the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium, which is held every four years to share research findings among scientists and policy makers. Manila hosted the fourth in the series in 1981.
Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and forum convener, brought home the significance of the latest forum with dramatic before-and-after photos showing contrasting scenes from the same sites where scientists have been doing coral reef research for some time.
One pair of photographs showed a pristine coral reef in Jamaica in the 1970s, which had been reduced to a pile of rubble on the seafloor four decades later.
Another showed a mantle of healthy corals fringing the Australian mainland in the late 1800s, with a backdrop of mountains framing the photo. The background remained the same, but the sprawling coral cover had been reduced to mudflats due to coastal development.
Coral reefs are estimated to contribute up to $375 billion to the global economy, with millions of coastal populations depending on them as a major source of livelihood, according to a press release from the organizers.
Aside from contributing to the food supply, coral reefs also serve as a natural breakwater that help protect coastal settlements from storms, and have gained popularity as a tourist attraction in recent decades.
In a statement prepared for the symposium that has gained 2,600 signatories so far, the world’s scientists sounded the alarm on the continuing decline of coral reefs.
“Approximately 25-30% of the world’s coral reefs are already severely degraded by local impacts from land and by over-harvesting,” the statement said.
“Coral reefs are important ecosystems of ecological, economic and cultural value yet they are in decline worldwide due to human activities.”
Jeremy Jackson, Senior Scientist Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, told a news
conference that reefs have seen severe declines globally in recent decades. He cited
as examples the Caribbean, which has lost up to 85 percent of its coral cover, and
the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, that has seen a 50 percent decline in coral cover
in the last 50 years.
In the Philippines, director Theresa Mundita Lim of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau reported that only one percent of the country’s reefs remain in excellent condition while 40 percent are considered to be in a poor state.
According to the symposium statement, “Land-based sources of pollution, sedimentation, overfishing and climate change are the major threats, and all of them are expected to increase in severity.”
Coral bleaching and climate change
According to the scientists, the warming of the surface of the world’s oceans by 0.7°C has led to “unprecedented” coral bleaching, a phenomenon that causes shallow reefs to turn white when they die due to higher water temperature.
Current levels of carbon emissions are expected to cause higher sea surface temperatures of up to 3°C and increase the severity of storms, posing even more danger to coral reefs, the statement said.
“The international Coral Reef Science Community calls on all governments to ensure the future of coral reefs, through global action to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and via improved local protection of coral reefs,” the scientists appealed in their statement.
“There is a window of opportunity for the world to act on climate change – but it is closing rapidly,” Hughes stressed.
Robert Richmond, president of the International Society for Reef Studies, said most scenarios point to a downward trend for the health of coral reefs worldwide.
“The scientific community has an enormous amount of research showing we have a problem. But right now, we are like doctors diagnosing a patient’s disease, but not prescribing any effective cures,” Richmond said.
“We have to start more actively engaging the process and supporting public officials with real-world prescriptions for success,” he added.
Stephen Palumbi, director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, said community action in reversing threats such as unregulated land development and unsustainable fishing practices is just as critical as government support for coral conservation.
He said positive measures such as rebuilding fish stocks, reducing pollution, and putting up more marine protected areas would contribute to healthier reefs that can recover faster from destructive phenomena like coral bleaching.
“Local action buys us time to deal with the bigger issue of climate change,” Palumbi said. – KG, GMA News