10 Mar 2019 Story Oceans & seas

Protecting coral reefs, as we move towards a blue economy

Throughout human existence, the oceans and seas have been a source of food, leisure, exploration, and a natural carbon sink. But with a rapidly growing global population—and more than half of people living within 100 kilometres of a coast— oceans and seas, and the marine life within them, are facing an unprecedented level of human threat.

This week, and up to 15 March 2019, UN Environment is using its convening power to bring together country representatives, members of civil society, private sector and others from across the world to work on solutions on how to improve the quality of oceans and seas. Member states are hopeful for a consensus to emerge at the Fourth UN Environment Assembly on the sustainable use of ocean or ‘blue’ resources for economic growth, enhanced livelihoods, and jobs, while still preserving ecosystems— a process being described as the “blue economy.”

“While the incredible potential of our oceans is well known, investment in innovative solutions to maintain healthy oceans remains limited,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “By investing in ocean-based sustainable development, we can safeguard the environment, propel the blue economy to new heights, and ensure that communities and business all thrive.”

One of the most threatened ocean ecosystems are coral reefs. Over the last three years, reefs around the world have suffered from mass coral bleaching due to a combination of marine pollution and global warming. It is estimated that 50 per cent of the world’s corals have been destroyed.

Yet coral reefs provide 500 million people with livelihoods through fishing and tourism, and also contribute an estimated US$1 trillion to the global economy. Similarly, reefs are vital to help achieve the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and deliver the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, especially ‘life below water’.

The discussions on the blue economy come as a new United Nations report on the effects of plastic pollution on coral reefs revealed that more than 800 marine and coastal species had had “some form of encounter with marine litter, of which the majority is plastic”. They added that pollution increased the likelihood of coral disease, rising from 4 to 89 per cent when corals were in contact with plastics.

Gabriel Grimsditch, Programme Management Officer of the marine and coastal ecosystems branch at UN Environment, and one of the reviewers of the report, said that although the “full impact” of plastics on coral reefs was still unknown, when it was put into context with the effects of climate change, overfishing and other types of pollution, “it is a worrying sign of a degrading planet”.

“Billions of pieces of plastics are currently polluting our coral reefs, with billions more expected to enter coral reef environments in the next decade,” he said.

If governments implement measures in line with the blue economy—ranging from sustainable fisheries to stringent regulations on coastal development—they could not only protect the beauty and diversity of coral reefs for future generations, but generate huge economic benefits. A report on the coral reef economy published by UN Environment, International Sustainability Unit and International Coral Reef Initiative, estimated that a shift towards a healthy coral state by 2030 could unlock an additional US$35 billion across tourism, commercial fishing and coastal development sectors in Mesoamerica, and an additional US$37 billion in Indonesia.

Representatives at the Fourth UN Environment Assembly—made up of more than 170 Member States—have asked the Executive Director of UN Environment, in collaboration with the International Coral Reef Initiative, to establish a working group for identifying global policy response options by the Fifth Environment Assembly, slated for 22–26 February 2021.