A risk manager’s approach to coral reefs

Will a financial portfolio approach help to minimize losses to the world’s coral reefs, and those that depend on, them due to climate change? This is the objective of the research and conservation teams in the 50 reefs project and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Paul G. Allen Foundation and The Tiffany and Company Foundation. The official press release is available here.

Experts are concerned about the rising trend in ocean temperature and what it means for coral reef ecosystems, especially given their importance to marine biodiversity and human well-being.

CORDIO East Africa has been part of a team led by the University of Queensland and involving 18 international coral reef experts, developing an approach which can support the identification of a portfolio of reefs with the best opportunity to survive the coming decades

In research published in Conservation Letters today, the scientists argue that their approach has identified a portfolio of coral reefs that may be less vulnerable to climate change, yet are well positioned to help regenerate surrounding, less fortunate coral reefs.

Coral reefs have been, and will continue to be, differently impacted by climate change they said.

Given this situation, the identification of reefs with the best opportunity to survive over coming decades may hold the key to the long-term survival and recovery of reefs everywhere, UQ Global Change Institute Director Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“Despite high levels of uncertainty, it may be possible to both identify, and prioritise investment in such reefs, in a similar way to that which asset managers deal with the investment risks associated with financial portfolios,” the senior author in the study said.

“It is imperative, however, that we achieve the Paris Climate Agreement (COP21) goals if we are to have any chance of saving coral reefs.

“What many people don’t realise is that coral reefs are still going to experience extremely challenging times even if we do achieve international targets on greenhouse gas emission reductions of this crucial UN Agreement.”

While some experts have focused on the loss of corals, it is the coral reefs that are most likely to survive that has motivated the work of the international science team. According to their research, such reefs may represent important conservation opportunities.

These reefs urgently require protection from other non-climate change related stresses, such as overfishing, pollution, and land-based sedimentation, study co-author UQ’s Dr Emma Kennedy said.

“We know that heat stress and storms are two of the major climate-related threats to reefs: we used the latest global datasets on these threats to map which reef locations might have a better chance of surviving the coming decades,” she said.

“Of these reefs, it is those that are well placed to supply other reefs with larvae that could be crucially important to the survival of coral reefs in the future.”

The team applied ideas from the financial investment world to develop a portfolio of reef areas to protect, the study’s lead author Dr Hawthorne Beyer said.

“By accounting for uncertainty in predicted future conditions, financial portfolio methods allow us to reduce the risk of widespread failure across the portfolio, with only a small impact on the expected benefits derived from the portfolio,” he said.

“Now we must assess the portfolio alongside field knowledge, local threats and political opportunity in these places. Where appropriate we should strengthen existing conservation efforts and invest in new efforts in these regions.”

The current work provides both a new approach to prioritizing conservation investments, and a vision of what those priorities might look like. Such an approach is additive to the many efforts already under way to identify, protect and manage coral reefs everywhere.

“We need to manage and protect ALL coral reefs as central to economc welfare as well as biodiversity”, said Dr. David Obura, CORDIO’s representative on the team, “and this analysis gives the strongest evidence base yet for how best to target management actions in relation to local and global threats together”.

While work focuses on long-term conservation priorities at a global scale, the authors note that other existing coral reef conservation initiatives remain critical for providing benefits at more local scales.

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said: “In moving ahead, it will be essential for reef scientists and conservation specialists to reach out to the people, governments and industries in these regions to better mitigate or manage ongoing local threats.

“Already, we have seen very significant interest in our framework and we are keen to develop partnerships to fulfill the vision of coral reefs regenerating this century.

“Hopefully, this global strategy will act as a rallying cry for us all to act and save these beautiful and important ecosystems.”


CITATION: Beyer, H.L., Kennedy, E.V., Beger, M., Chen, C.A., Cinner, J.E., Darling, E.S., Eakin, C.M., Gates, R.D., Heron, S.F., Knowlton, N., Obura, D.O., Palumbi, S.R., Possingham, H.P., Puotinen, M., Runting, R.K., Skirving, W.J., Spalding, M., Wilson, K.A., Wood, S., Veron, J.E. & Hoegh-Guldberg, O. Risk-sensitive planning for conserving coral reefs under rapid climate change. Conservation Letters https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/conl.12587