The Coral Reef Alliance

Healthy coral reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on the planet. Nearly a billion people live near coral reefs, with many relying on reefs for food, coastal protection from storms and erosion, and income from fishing, recreation, and tourism*. At a global scale, coral reefs have enormous intrinsic value as the ocean's richest biodiversity hotspot. In addition, coral reef biodiversity is increasingly becoming a primary source for the biological compounds used to develop new medicines. Yet coral reefs also represent one of the most imperiled biomes on the planet. An estimated 60 percent of the world's reefs are under immediate and direct threat from local activi...
Jul 19, 2016

Sunscreen and Corals

For many of us, coral reefs are vacation destinations; places we feel lucky to visit. We plan our trip and packing lists carefully, and bring clothes and sunscreens to protect our skin from the intensity of the equatorial sun, but as we reported in January, sunscreen is not as safe for corals as we once thought.

Sunscreen is bad for corals

Photo Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

This June, many of the world’s top coral reef scientists met at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawaii to discuss the challenges facing coral reefs. Sunscreen and other personal care product ingredients were hot topics. Of particular concern to scientists was oxybenzone, a chemical used in sunscreens to protect our skin from damaging UV light. Oxybenzone is bad news for corals, harming them by;

  • Increasing a coral’s susceptibility to bleaching
  • Damaging coral DNA which interferes with reproduction
  • Causing deformities and growth anomalies
  • Disrupting a coral’s hormonal processes for growth and reproduction

Perhaps most alarming is that all of this can happen with very low doses of the chemical, only 62 parts per trillion (equivalent to one drop of water in 6.5 Olympic swimming pools)! Sunscreen can enter the water directly from our bodies while swimming, or it can wash off the sand at the beach. Spray-on sunscreens especially create a chemical cloud that often misses the skin and settles on the sand. As the tide comes in, all these chemicals wash into the ocean; one study found higher oxybenzone concentrations in the ocean at high tide than low tide. Sunscreen chemicals can also enter the ocean in treated wastewater after it is washed off in the shower or excreted through urine.

So what can we do? This session shared some good news: we can protect ourselves from the sun and protect coral reefs from harmful chemicals. Just use these simple guidelines:

  • While at the beach wear a shirt and hat, and use a long-sleeved rash guard when swimming.
  • Avoid spray-on sunscreens, and use safer mineral-based sunscreens like zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
  • Look for marine safe products, such as those marked with the “Marine Safe” icon.

If we all follow these guidelines, the next time you’re on vacation gliding over a picturesque coral reef, you can snorkel with the peace of mind knowing that you aren’t the source of any reef-harming chemicals.

Jun 22, 2016

Corals Can Adapt to Our Changing Environment

Coral reefs around the world are being hit hard by many stressors. At the local level, they’re dealing with issues like overfishing and poor water quality. At the global level, they’re facing warming temperatures, more acidic oceans, and stronger storms. With effective management, we can mitigate many local threats. But the global ones are a bit harder. It’s clear that if corals are going to survive global climate change, they are going to have to adapt.

The good news is that we know that corals can adapt. They have evolved numerous ways to deal with environmental conditions – for example, some corals thrive in murky river mouths while others flourish in warm-water lagoons. But the pace of climate change is rapid, leaving corals with a small window in which to adjust to rapidly changing conditions.

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So what can we do to help corals adapt? This was the topic of one of Monday’s sessions at the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS). Lead by our very own Dr. Madhavi Colton, the session brought together experts in coral reef biology, genetics, and ecology to answer this very question.

Many of the talks in this session focused on assisted evolution—that is, speeding up evolution through direct management. For example, one speaker shared her work creating hybrid corals—similar to work being done to create hybrid tomatoes. If you breed the sperm from one species of coral with the egg from another, can you create a coral that will do better under future conditions?

Dr. Adrian Stier of the University of Washington called these predict-and-prescribe approaches. Predict-and-prescribe approaches place bets about what future conditions will look like and which corals will do better under these conditions. If those predictions are correct, then these strategies can be incredibly effective. But according to Stier, they are also inherently risky because they are focused on a few species or genes. What if those bets are wrong? We risk losing the very diversity from which climate change winners could naturally emerge.

IMG_1645 (2)

Instead, Stier advocated following Warren Buffet’s example. Financial markets are like ecosystems in that they are inherently unpredictable (despite what your financial manager might have told you!). In the face of this uncertain future, a smart investment decision is to hedge your bets and diversify your portfolio. Through diverse investments, you are less likely to lose everything and more likely to consistently gets better returns.

We can do the same for coral reefs, Stier said. Instead of investing all of our efforts into creating corals of the future, we can protect diverse portfolios of options. We can let nature pick the winners. As one member of the audience stated, if we focus our efforts on reducing local threats—many local threats, not just one or two—and building marine protected areas that are connected to each other, we’ll have a better chance of corals adapting to future environmental changes.

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May 10, 2016

Bleaching on Australia's Great Barrier Reef

coral bleaching

Recently bleached corals appear white (Photo by XL Catlin Seaview Survey)

A plane flies low over a turquoise sea off the coast of Queensland in northern Australia. Below lies the largest reef in the world: the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). At first, I think—or maybe it’s hope—that the white patches are boulders or cresting wavelets. But as the plane flies on, their true identity becomes undeniably clear: these are bleached corals. And there are a lot of them.

As this video taken by researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies makes clear, the GBR is in trouble. Reports indicate that up to 93 percent of corals in the northern part of the reef have bleached. But it’s not just the GBR that’s reporting bleaching: corals in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, north and south Pacific, and coral triangle are all turning bone-white.

Coral Bleaching at Lizard Island

Corals provide complex structure for fish and other reef creatures, these bleached corals were photographed by XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

What does it mean to say that a coral is bleached? Corals get their colors from tiny algae that live within their tissues. These algae help corals grow by capturing energy from sunlight through photosynthesis. When waters get too warm for too long, these algae go into overdrive and their ramped up metabolism creates a toxic environment for corals. In response, the algae get kicked out, and the corals lose their color. Bleached corals aren’t necessarily dead corals, but the longer the bleaching continues, the lower the chance is that the corals will be able to recover.

The current bleaching in the GBR is part of the third recorded global bleaching event. It’s the result of a particularly strong El Niño occurring on top of already elevated global temperatures. Any single event is worrisome, but scientists are seeing an increase in the frequency of bleaching events. This means that corals don’t have the time they need to recover, and this has many people very worried. Only time will tell us how many—or how few—corals will survive this latest event.

I had been reading reports of bleaching from around the world for months before I saw that video, so I should have known what to expect. But those thousands of words had not prepared me for a minute-long video. Those of us in conservation like to joke that we are trying really hard to put ourselves out of work. How great would it be if coral reefs no longer needed our help? I have never been so saddened by job security than when I saw all those bleached corals. We have a lot of work still to do.

So what can we do? We can reduce local threats to reefs—such as overfishing and water pollution—so that reefs have ‘breathing room’ to recover from disturbances like bleaching. We can urge our politicians to take action on climate change. And we can find ways to support the many communities around the world that are working to protect coral reefs, one of the most wondrous ecosystems on earth.

A healthy reef off Palmyra Atoll

By reducing local threats to reefs, we can help reefs recover from larger global impacts (Photo by CORAL).


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