Multinational ocean sanctuaries could help corals survive climate change

The study emphasizes the need for international collaborations to tackle the ever-emerging coral reefs problem.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Marine scientists studying coral responses in the field at Papua New Guinea.Florida Tech

Alarming studies have predicted that roughly 70% to 90% of coral reef habitats could vanish from our oceans in the next 20 years from the effects of climate change and pollution. These natural habitats are essential to the planet's biodiversity and must be protected at all costs.

Ingenious approaches to saving the coral reefs

In the past, researchers have come up with quite ingenious ways to save the corals, including adding 3D-printed structures to the seas. Now, a new study led by researchers at Florida Tech recommends multinational networks of protected reefs as the best chance corals have to survive the ever devastating effects of climate change, according to a report by the institution published on Friday.

“While traditional marine reserves were commonly designed to prevent over-harvesting, the study recommends the establishment of networks of huge ‘mesoscale’ multinational sanctuaries to preserve the genetic diversity necessary to fuel evolutionary adaptation,” Rob van Woesik, professor and director of the Institute for Global Ecology, said. “To ‘climate-proof’ reefs, we need to conserve both coral reef habitats and genetic diversity.”

“There are several examples of such large multi-national networks of protected areas on land, and we need to make similar efforts in the ocean,” post-doctoral fellow Tom Shlesinge added.

A need for international collaborations

Both Shlesinger and van Woesik are from Florida Tech. They led the new research with the support of 26 colleagues from around the world. The resulting study emphasized the need for international collaborations to tackle the ever-emerging coral reefs problem.

“Innovative, interdisciplinary solutions and novel molecular methods will help resolve responses to thermal stress and, therefore, can improve the identification of corals best suited for restoration efforts," van Woesik added.

The researcher went on to indicate that the best way to save the coral reefs is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a novel goal that many organizations have been working on. The new study is published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Abstract:

The global impacts of climate change are evident in every marine ecosystem. On coral reefs, mass coral bleaching and mortality have emerged as ubiquitous responses to ocean warming, yet one of the greatest challenges of this epiphenomenon is linking information across scientific disciplines and spatial and temporal scales. Here we review some of the seminal and recent coral-bleaching discoveries from an ecological, physiological, and molecular perspective. We also evaluate which data and processes can improve predictive models and provide a conceptual framework that integrates measurements across biological scales. Taking an integrative approach across biological and spatial scales, using, for example, hierarchical models to estimate major coral-reef processes, will not only rapidly advance coral-reef science but will also provide necessary information to guide decision-making and conservation efforts. To conserve reefs, we encourage implementing mesoscale sanctuaries (thousands of km2) that transcend national boundaries. Such networks of protected reefs will provide reef connectivity, through larval dispersal that transverse thermal environments, and genotypic repositories that may become essential units of selection for environmentally diverse locations. Together, multinational networks may be the best chance corals have to persist through climate change, while humanity struggles to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to net zero.

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