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High-level Workshop Discusses Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs


While coral reefs represent less than 0.2% of the total surface of the oceans, they have major ecological importance as they provide habitats for over 30% of all marine fauna. (Photo: P. Swarzenski/IAEA)

The IAEA, through its Environment Laboratories organised, in partnership with the Scientific Centre of Monaco (CSM), a workshop on ocean acidification, which this year focused on the impact on ecosystem services and coral reefs. With sixty participants from twenty-two countries including HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco it aimed to bring the global discussion from sciences to solutions.

Recent research, including that done by the IAEA, shows that ocean acidification effects on fisheries, aquaculture and coral reefs are expanding, both in terms of geographical location and intensity. Some effects are direct such as on species’ physiology: growth, reproduction and calcification, while others may be indirect: e.g. impact on food sources, habitat degradation, changes in the food chain structure etc.

Bringing together world experts including natural scientists, economists and sociologists, this fourth international workshop in the series “Bridging the Gap between Ocean Acidification Impacts and Economic Valuation” was held at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco from 15-17 October 2017.

With the consecutive bleaching episodes over the past couple of years, the focus on coral reefs was timely. Ruth Gates, Director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii estimates that 50% of the world’s coral reefs have died. During the three days of plenary presentations and regional working groups, participants discussed the “value” of coral reefs. Whereas some of the economic valuations ranged in the trillions of dollars, several participants were keen to emphasize their societal and sociological value. Some countries have adapted to coral reef degradation, and have started eating different types of fish and even modifying their touristic activities to highlight other aspects of their coast. However, not all countries have the same possibilities to change, and the consequences for the local culture could be significant. In some areas, such as small Pacific islands, the entire population’s lifestyle centres around the coral reefs, including the food they eat, their art, and even elements of their language. The demise of the reef would lead to profound societal changes.

HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco in his closing remarks said that “environmental questions are not a luxury, but an absolute necessity”.

"Environmental questions are not a luxury, but an absolute necessity."
HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco

HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco highlighted the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 which aims to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources. (Photo: S. Jones Couture/IAEA)

Is it too late?

One of the resounding messages during the three-day workshop was a message of hope. It is not too late, and a variety of solutions exist. When faced with the choice of where to focus our efforts first, Ruth Gates summarised: “Do something, and do something now”. She stressed that solutions as simple as installing mooring buoys over coral reefs, as opposed to having people throw anchors, could have immediate positive impacts.

What are the solutions?

Several participants provided overviews of their work on coral reef restoration and rehabilitation. Frank Mars, member of the Board of directors of Mars Inc., known for its eponymous chocolate bars, and former Global President of Mars Symbioscience, discussed some of the organisation’s successes in coral reef rehabilitation in Indonesia. Their participative projects, which see the involvement of local populations, have already been successful on a small scale, and have seen two hectares rehabilitated between 2012 and 2017. Though small progress, this has had an impact on local populations who have seen fish catches from the reef increase, and Mr Mars argues that such projects are scalable and can be successful on a larger scale.

“Solutions exist, but we need to start seeing more involvement from policy-makers and private companies to enact change” said Mr Mars.

Beyond these solutions for adaptation and rehabilitation, one of the key messages from participants was that reducing greenhouse gases would effectively limit the pressure on coral reefs by curbing ocean acidification, and climate change impacts such as increase in temperature and rise in sea level. As Jean-Pierre Gattuso from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) summarised it “decreasing CO2 emissions is the best solution”. He added “if the Paris Agreement on Climate is fully and timely implemented, only 1% of the world ocean will exceed key thresholds of temperature and acidity. Otherwise, in a business-as-usual situation, 69% of the ocean will exceed these thresholds”.

Participants in the workshop on ocean acidification, which this year focused on the impact on ecosystem services and coral reefs. (Photo: F. Pacorel/Oceanographic Museum, Monaco)

While coral reefs represent less than 0.2% of the total surface of the oceans, they have major ecological importance as they provide habitats for over 30% of all marine fauna. They provide essential ecosystem services as a source of food/protein to human communities, a source of income from tourism, as well as costal protection against erosion and storms. Even a small alteration in the ecological functions of coral reefs could have a major impact on human societies.

Nuclear and isotopic techniques are powerful tools for studying ocean acidification and have contributed widely to investigating past changes in ocean acidity and potential impacts on marine organisms. Researchers at the IAEA Environment Laboratories use calcium-45 to examine the growth rates in calcifying organisms such as corals, mussels and other molluscs, whose skeletons and shells are composed of calcium carbonate. Tracers are also used to determine how ocean acidification is affecting the physiology of marine organisms, as well as the impact of a combination of stressors, such as ocean acidification, increases in temperature and contaminants.

David Osborn, director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories, highlighted the “need for new science in order to inform the decisions we make on ocean acidification”. He added that “it was important to address the multiple stressors which the oceans face, including pollution, overfishing and environmental changes”.

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