The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) announced on October 3 that its member nations are set to raise $12bn to protect the world's imperiled coral reefs. This funding is aimed at combating a multitude of threats, including pollution and overfishing, that have taken a toll on these vital marine ecosystems. While this commitment is a significant step forward, experts emphasize that the challenges faced by coral reefs extend beyond financial support and require comprehensive climate action.
Coral reefs, often called the "rainforests of the sea," are home to a quarter of the planet's marine species and provide sustenance and livelihoods for over a billion people worldwide.
"The functional existence of these critical ecosystems is at stake due to the climate crisis and a myriad of other anthropogenic stressors. The window for protecting these ecosystems is closing rapidly," warned the ICRI.
The threats to coral reefs have been mounting over the years, driven by rising marine pollution, uncontrolled coastal development, and extensive fishing activities. However, the most significant threat they face is increasing sea temperatures, leading to a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. This process causes corals to expel the colorful algae within them, ultimately weakening and sometimes killing the coral colonies.
Marian Wong, a senior lecturer at the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences at Australia's University of Wollongong, expressed the urgency of addressing rising temperatures.
"Threats are very grave, especially as we head into another El Niño. We are expecting coral bleaching on a mass scale to occur again, probably February to March unless we are very lucky," she noted, referring to the cyclical ocean warming event.
ICRI has set ambitious goals for the coming decade, aiming to "secure the future" of 125,000 square kilometers of shallow-water tropical coral reefs and double the areas under effective protection. The organization also pledges to "accelerate" the restoration of damaged reefs using innovative solutions.
However, David Booth, a marine ecologist at the University of Technology Sydney, cautioned against placing all hopes on restoration efforts. He explained that scaling up coral restoration would be "unfathomably expensive."
ICRI was established in 1994 by a group of countries including Australia, France, Japan, Jamaica, the Philippines, Sweden, Britain, and the United States. Since then, its membership has grown to encompass 45 countries, representing three-quarters of the world's coral reefs.
Terry Hughes, a coral expert at Australia's James Cook University, called on ICRI countries to prioritize reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He noted that some countries, ironically including Australia and Saudi Arabia, advocate for coral restoration as a solution, potentially allowing fossil fuel industries to continue polluting the atmosphere for their profit.
While the $12bn commitment is a positive step towards protecting coral reefs, experts agree that a comprehensive approach addressing climate change remains imperative to secure the long-term health of these fragile ecosystems.