Shoring up our coral reefs

Dear Editor,

It’s impossible to imagine The Bahamas without its vast network of coral reefs. Home to the island chain’s iconic grouper, snapper, sea turtle and spiny lobster stocks that sustain locals and draw tourists, losing these magical ecosystems would be an ecological and economic tragedy.

But that’s what might happen in as little as the next few decades. Already 80 percent of corals in the Caribbean have fallen victim to pollution, overfishing – legal and otherwise – and coastal development. Increasingly, warming and acidifying oceans due to climate change are already taking their toll.

And the Caribbean isn’t the only region impacted. Half of the world’s tropical coral is dead; 90 percent of the remaining is projected to die in just 30 years.

As a major global report on biodiversity recently warned, human activity is threatening one million species worldwide. Coral reefs alone are biodiversity hotspots, home to millions of plants and animals. When reefs die, the quarter of all marine species that rely on their nooks and crannies for survival die too.

But coral reef loss is just as detrimental to people. These ecosystems provide food or income to one billion people worldwide, conservatively generating $30 billion annually.

In The Bahamas, coral reefs provide far more than just revenue from fishing, snorkeling and scuba expeditions. They provide food and medicinal compounds. And they provide a natural buffer against erosion, floods and other extreme weather events, reducing wave energy an average 97 percent.

Without them, beachfront hotels and homes are defenseless against powerful ocean waves. Tourism economies dependent on the allure of rich marine life risk collapse. And local communities have to go without the nutrient-rich fish that dominate their diets and provide them income.

Fortunately, there are viable solutions to stemming this destruction. Clear evidence shows that conservation, establishing marine-protected areas and sustainable development can protect our remaining reefs. Ending greenhouse gas emissions is another critical step.

Instituting marine protected areas across The Bahamas alone would generate nearly $68 million a year. By preserving mangroves and seagrasses, these areas would also store 400 million tons of carbon, worth $5 billion in avoided emissions.

While these actions are crucial for saving the reefs that we have left, easily replicable adaptation measures are also required as measures to stop climate change. One such essential adaptation tool to sustain coral is actively restoring reefs.

To save the region’s ecosystems and economy, we must bring lost reefs back from the dead. Just as the world is embarking on the global restoration of forests, we must revive our reefs on a local, regional and global scale.

Rebuilding these ecosystems isn’t a new idea. But, until recently, it was such a long, grueling process that prospects for wide scale resurrection were slim. Now, cutting-edge technologies and new scalable models are giving us a chance.

The Gates Coral Lab, founded by the late reef innovator Dr. Ruth Gates, is pioneering new techniques to farm coral that can withstand the hotter temperatures that threaten their survival. The Mote Marine Lab discovered a way to speed the growth of slow-growing corals by up to 50 times natural rates. The science and technology, and even the business model, are in place to bring our coral reefs back.

Right now, the public sector is the primary funder of reef protection and restoration efforts. But it is a huge burden to bear. Some countries, such as Seychelles and Palau, have devised innovative funding mechanisms for “blue economy” undertakings like reef restoration. But most governments haven’t put forth funding to support reef restoration at the ecosystem level.

Donors and philanthropists are filling some of the gaps. But without private sector investment to turn the tide on restoration, efforts to revive reefs will go adrift.

It only makes sense for companies, industries and individuals relying on healthy reefs for income to invest in them. Losing these ecosystems is already taking its toll on coastal property owners, tourism operators and the fishing industry. Leaders such as insurance giant Swiss Re recognize the potential economic hit from lost reefs, having recently launched a pilot insurance program that incentivizes reef restoration after hurricanes.

By paying back just a fraction of their revenues from reefs, cruise lines, coastal real estate developers, tourism providers and fishing outfits can help sustain the ecosystem that supports their business through active reef restoration and conservation.

It will take billions to bring our reefs back, but the resulting “coral reef economy” will deliver high returns — now and far in the future.

– Gator Halpern, co-founder, Coral Vita

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