Are coral reefs condemned to disappear? During the first decade of the 21st century, the intensification of cyclones, the phenomenon of coral bleaching due to ocean warming, outbreaks of a coral-eating starfish and coral diseases left us with this fear. In terms of addressing knowledge gaps, coral reefs are a priority because of their extraordinarily high biological richness and the multitude of products and ecosystem services they provide to human beings. What is the status and legal regime of coral reefs nowadays?
Are coral reefs condemned to disappear? During the first decade of the 21st century, the intensification of cyclones, the phenomenon of coral bleaching due to ocean warming, outbreaks of a coral-eating starfish, coral diseases, dynamite and cyanide fishing, illegal trafficking/poaching of exclusive coral left us with this fear. Since 1997, the “Year of the Reef”, global awareness of the importance of our marine heritage has not lead to a decrease of threats to coral reefs and their aquatic ecosystems. In terms of addressing knowledge gaps, coral reefs are a priority because of their extraordinarily high biological richness and the multitude of products and ecosystem services they provide to human beings. Back in 1993, marine scientologists estimated that 10 percent of the world’s reefs were dead, and that 30 percent were likely to die within 10 to 20 years. So, what is the status and legal regime of coral reefs nowadays?
A team of scientists from the International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS) (led by Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland) has assessed the measures needed to avoid permanent extensive loss of living reef ecosystems. An increasing number of ocean regions have reported extensive coral bleaching - whitening and death of corals due to extreme temperatures – over recent months. The greenhouse gas emission reduction pledges submitted to Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP21) in Paris in 2015 fall well short of what is required to avoid this biodiversity catastrophe. The conclusions of the team (checked by a larger panel of specialists) were that if average global surface temperatures increase by 2°C or more, relative to the pre-industrial period, the resultant ocean warming, along with acidification, will lead to continued widespread destruction of coral reef ecosystems over the next few decades.
For instance, the island of Mauritius is bracing itself for a double threat to its coral reef -- climate change and the El Nino effect, which could hit the Indian Ocean later this year. Conservationists say an increase in sea temperature could cause coral bleaching, killing its underwater paradise. Another example is the coral in the Florida Keys; the ocean temperature there is 2 degrees warmer that was recorded only a few decades ago and is creating stress on the coral.
The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (Montego Bay, 10 December 1982) (UNCLOS) is the primary convention regarding the use of the ocean and its resources. Because most reef formations are limited to waters less than 50 m depth, they tend to occur in near-shore waters; this places the majority of coral reefs within countries’ internal waters and exclusive jurisdiction. States, in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on protection and preservation of the marine environment (Part XII), commit themselves, in accordance with their policies, priorities and resources, to prevent, reduce and control degradation of the marine environment so as to maintain and improve its life-support and productive capacities.
"The measures taken in accordance with this Part shall include those necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life." (Article 194(5) UNCLOS) Such obligations are supportive of the need to conserve coral reef ecosystmes through Marine Protected Areas (“MPAs”) but they are at best general, requiring support from more detailed, supplementary protocols and national regulations, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975.
While nearly 20 percent of the world’s coral reef habitat lies within one of 980 Marine Protected Areas, less than 0.1 percent are protected by “no-take” rules that prohibit poach-ing, and none are protected from risks arising outside the MPA. Even when reefs are officially “protected,” a mandate to regulate on behalf of a species, an area, a process or a habitat may not guarantee protection in an area subject to fractured jurisdiction or authority. Existing marine reserves are largely ineffective and as a whole remain insufficient for the protection of coral reef diversity.
Coral reefs received also some attention at the 1992 Earth Summit and were addressed in Chapter 17 of Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development:
17.84. States should prohibit dynamiting, poisoning and other comparable destructive fishing practices.
17.85. States should identify marine ecosystems exhibiting high levels of biodiversity and productivity and other critical habitat areas and should provide necessary limitations on use in these areas, through, inter alia, designation of protected areas. Priority should be accorded, as appropriate, to:
(a) Coral reef ecosystems; (....)
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar, 2 February 1971) has offered a mechanism for international recognition by listing of coral reef sites. Currently there are about 277 Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites) that host coral formations. See Factsheet 5, April, 1, 2015). However, it is not entirely clear that the definition of 'wetlands' under the Ramsar Convention is wide enough to offer sufficient coverage for all coral reefs.
International efforts to address the problem of coral reef degradation have been spearheaded by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), created in 1994. Its founding members include 8 nations (Australia, France, Jamaica, Japan, the Philippines, Sweden, U.K. and U.S.) as well as U.N. bodies (the UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO), regional organizations (South Pacific Regional Environment Program, Coordinating Body for the Seas of East Asia), multilateral banks (World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank) and NGOs (IUCN, Alliance of Small Island States). One of the goals is, inter alia, establishing and maintaining coordination of international, regional and national research and monitoring programs, including the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, in association with the Global Ocean Observing System, to ensure efficient use of scarce resources and a flow of information relevant to management of coral reefs and associated environments.
A few examples of (longterm) research concerning coral reefs:
- 37 Years later: revisiting a Red Sea long-term monitoring site;
- Coral community responses to declining water quality: Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
The above mentioned International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS) is the principal association (learned society) to which scientists and managers and others professionally concerned with coral reefs belong. It publishes the highly rated scientific journal “Coral Reefs” and organises the very large four-yearly International Coral Reef Symposium, the next to be held in June 2016, in Hawaii.
If you feel the urge to help clean coral reefs throughout the world's oceans (as a diver), this website will be a nice start: ProjectAware
- Goodwin, E.J., International Environmental Law and the Conservation of Coral Reefs, London, Routledge, 2011.
- Hedge, P. and Molloy, F., "An integrated monitoring framework for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area", Marine policy: the international journal for economics planning and politics of ocean exploitation, 77 (2017), pp. 90-96.
- McManus, J.W., "Offshore Coral Reef Damage, Overfishing, and Paths to Peace in the South China Sea", The international journal of marine and coastal law, 32 (2017), No. 2, pp. 199-237.