Remoteness not helping coral reef health

Written by Oceanographic Staff

While remote coral reefs were initially thought to be more resilient to climate change due to their isolation from human activities, a new study found that, in fact, the opposite might be the case.

While remote coral reefs were initially thought to be more resilient to climate change due to their isolation from human impact like fishing or pollution, a new study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, found that, in fact, the opposite might be the case and remoteness doesn’t necessarily foster coral reef health.

The research team behind the study measured the relationship between local human influence and coral community resilience by conducting a global meta-analysis based on published monitoring studies that looked at changes in hard corals due to bleaching events, storm damage or disease.

The study surprisingly found “no relationship between human influence and resistance to disturbance and some evidence that areas with greater human development may recover from disturbance faster than their more isolated counterparts”.

Coral resilience as well as rates of recovery also varied greatly globally. While some reefs continued to decline after a disturbance, others showed no response or even showcased a positive response Particularly resilient reefs were Nelly Bay in the Great Barrier Reef, Iriomote Island in Japan as well as Australia’s Carter Reef. Reefs that struggled to recover included reefs in Okinawa and Belize. Ultimately, the rate of recovery was influenced by pre-disturbance coral cover, meaning that “reefs that had high coral cover recovering two times faster than reefs with low pre-disturbance cover”, according to the study.

Surprisingly, coral reef health was positively associated with local human influence but the researchers were quick to point out that human influences still need to be managed and reconsidered. “Our findings allude to the idea that even if we removed local human stressors from a lot of these reefs, it still wouldn’t be enough,” said UCSB graduate student researcher and an author on this paper Lily Zhao. “To protect coral reefs, I think we should be spending less time telling coral reef dependent nations what to do with their resources and more time supporting their adaptation and advocating for drastic emissions reductions from the high-income countries that have caused the climate crisis.”

Ultimately, the results show that coral reefs all over the world are threatened by climate change – even the most remote ones. The best way to protect coral reefs is to drastically and quickly cut greenhouse emissions. The new findings, however, could provide new insights and prove invaluable for future reef management proposals.

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Photography courtesy of Unsplash.

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