#INT13: Hoegh-Guldberg and coral reefs

Photo adapted from Wikimedia Commons, author: Nhobgood

Photo adapted from Wikimedia Commons, author: Nhobgood

For my first large international conference, I didn’t really know what to expect. I admit that I was nervous and a little intimidated by everything the first day, but INTECOL 2013 turned out to be a fantastic experience. I hardly had time to attend everything that I wanted to go to, and it was great to be a part of this event! I have already written about my first day here, and the following paragraphs will be looking at Tuesday’s morning plenary, which I found to be one of the most memorable sessions of Tuesday’s INTECOL session (I will be discussing some more memorable sessions in future posts).

Tuesday started off with a plenary on coral reefs given by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. The following paragraphs draw the main points which I took away with me from his presentation.

Introducing the unique habitat of coral reefs, Hoegh-Guldberg emphasised their importance with regards to how ancient these systems are, their biodiversity, productivity, and their importance to 300-500 million people worldwide for food, livelihood and coastal protection.

However, around 40-50% of corals worldwide have been lost. Serious problems include crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks which can cause widespread decline of corals, acidification of our oceans and extreme weather events such as cyclones. Look at a more local perspective and the issues include declining water quality (from our large cities, coastal agriculture leading to leaching of nutrients into water systems and aquaculture), over-exploitation of resources such as fish, and destructive practices (such as coastal development and, again, fishing).

When we look at the scientific literature that’s out there in terms of climate impacts on ecosystems, the vast majority focuses on terrestrial systems. So while mass coral bleaching is being reported word wide at increasing intensity and frequency, with millions of people depending on these ecosystems for a living, the marine literature is seriously lagging behind.

And why are corals so important? As Heogh-Guldberg pointed out, they are central organisms in the ecosystem, and therefore the loss of corals means a loss of fish communities.  Unfortunately corals are not well designed for rapid evolution or rapid migration and so with global warming and increasing ocean temperatures the future of coral reefs does not look good.

So what can we do? Hoegh-Guldberg advises to mitigate or adapt to climate change. We also need to bring the importance of coral reefs to the general population, by making it personal to them and “reaching the human heart”. Hoegh-Guldberg’s plenary ended with an example of how you can achieve just this; with the new google view of coral reefs with the Caitlin Seaview Survey (check out mongabay’s article on just this!). Now anyone can take a dive into the Great Barrier Reef.

I also completely agree with the need to reach the wider public, which I briefly discussed in our previous post about INTECOL. Conservation organisations, which haven’t already done so, need to put more emphasis on their outreach and total impact, and this includes reaching out with social media. I thought that the coral reef google view project was very impressive, and hopefully it has the effect which we are all hoping for! I wish Hoegh-Guldberg and his team at Caitlin Seaview Survey the best of luck, and we at EcoPost will be looking forwards to reading more news about their project.

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