26 Apr 2016 Story Climate change

Bleaching of Great Barrier Reef corals worst ever, scientists say

Mass bleaching of vital ‘underwater cities’ underscores urgency of protecting invaluable natural asset that “we can’t afford to lose”

Warming ocean temperatures have triggered what scientists are calling the worst mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef’s spectacular corals.

Almost 93% of the area’s reefs have been hit by coral bleaching, according to a comprehensive survey that reveals the terrifying scale of the devastation.

Bleaching can kill corals, which form reefs that support a quarter of all marine life, if it lasts for an extended period of time.

Worryingly, the planet is currently in the grip of a worldwide bleaching event that scientists say is caused by an unusually strong El Nino and the background global warming caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Corals bleach when temperatures rise above their normal summer limit for more than a few weeks.

The scientists who conducted the survey of the Great Barrier Reef say they are already seeing mortality as high as 50 per cent in some regions, a rate that they say could rise to more than 90 per cent in some parts.

In May, countries will meet in Nairobi for UNEA 2 – the world’s de facto “Parliament for the Environment” – to discuss the sustainable management of the world’s coral reefs . Finding ways to combat the destruction of these reefs will be vital if the world is to achieve some of the key goals set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“The recent bleaching we've seen globally, and particularly on the Great Barrier Reef, is distressing from an environmental point of view,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which is headquartered in Nairobi.

“But it is equally concerning because of its potential impact on lives and livelihoods that depend on coral reefs for food and natural protection from storms, and to draw tourism.”

Known as the the world’s underwater cities, reefs provide vital habitat for large numbers of fish and marine life.

But overfishing and destructive fishing methods such as cyanide fishing and dynamite fishing as well as, coral mining, nutrient and sediment pollution, careless tourism, coastal development and climate change are slowly destroying these essential ecosystems.

In the Caribbean, human impacts have caused the loss of more than half of the region’s coral cover over the past 40 years.

Globally, about 20 per cent of coral reefs have been destroyed and scientists predict even greater losses in the years ahead as the seas warm and the oceans grow more acidic. One eighth of the world’s population lives within 100km of a coral reef, and more than half a billion people draw direct benefits from their ecosystem services. They provide coastal protection from storm surges and ocean waves, as well as building materials and new medicines to treat diseases like cancer and HIV.

The 30 million people who inhabit atolls depend almost entirely on coral reefs to live. In the Maldives, a single artificial breakwater built to replace a destroyed coral reef cost the government about $12 million.

Along with mangroves and sea-grass beds, coral reefs deliver the highest annual value in terms of ecosystem services of all natural ecosystems on the planet. One square kilometre of healthy, well-managed coral reef can yield a catch of over 15 tonnes of fish and other seafood every year.

In all, the Earth’s coral reefs provide a global economic value – from fisheries, tourism and coastal protection – of around $325,000 per hectare per year.

“There is truly no time to waste, and this month's UNEA is an opportunity to accelerate action on safeguarding our planet,” says Steiner. “Coral reefs are an invaluable natural asset we can't afford to lose.”

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is the world’s most powerful decision-making body on the environment and responsible for tackling some of the most critical issues of our time.

A draft resolution on coral reefs, proposed by Indonesia and co-sponsored by Norway and Palau, will be debated at UNEA, which runs from 23-27 May 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya, is an opportunity for discussion and action.

The resolution “calls for national, regional and international initiatives, cooperation and commitments to conserve and sustainably manage coral reefs, including cold-water coral reefs and mangrove forests that contribute to food security and nutrition for peoples’ livelihoods.”

It encourages governments to prioritize the conservation and sustainable management of reefs by, for example, establishing marine protected areas and carrying out other actions that may enhance resilience to climate change.

The resolution also urges countries to recognise that education, capacity building and knowledge transfer on the importance of coral reefs is crucial while requesting UNEP to analyse global and regional coral reef policy and governance arrangements and provide recommendation on how to increase protection of reefs.

The assembly’s focus on the environment gives it the power to improve human health, wellbeing, livelihoods, jobs and sustainable growth. Thanks to UNEA, the environment is now considered one of the world’s most pressing concerns alongside other major global issues such as peace, security, economics and health.

In May, hundreds of key decision makers, businesses and representatives of intergovernmental organizations and civil society will gather in Nairobi for UNEA-2 at the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi.

The assembly will be one of the first major meetings since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement. The resolutions passed at UNEA-2 will set the stage for early action on implementing the 2030 Agenda, and drive the world towards a better, more just, more sustainable future.