How healthy are the world’s coral reefs?

Dr Sean Porter

Coral reefs are beautiful examples of nature in all its splendour, diversity and complexity, but there is a lot more to them than just meets the eye! Coral reefs are in fact true barometers of how healthy our environment is, both on land and in the sea, as they are sensitive to many things such as climate change and pollution. Measuring changes in coral cover over time provides a good indication of the health of our planet and environment, and ultimately ourselves. This is what a team of scientists, including Dr Sean Porter from the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI), are attempting to do for coral reefs around the world.

Dr Porter was among 42 people from 25 countries who recently met in Bangkok, Thailand at a Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) workshop on the Status of Coral Reefs of the World 2020. This was in response to a United Nations (UN) Assembly Resolution on coral reefs, which called on the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to “support further development of coral reef indicators, regional coral reef assessments, and prepare a global report through the GCRMN.”

Based on this directive, the GCRMN’s goal is to produce a report on the status and trends of the world’s coral reefs that will inform high-level, policy-related audiences such as the United Nations, inter-governmental and international donor community, as well as the various United Nations Regional Seas conventions, governments and global and regional conventions. This enormous task has involved analysing 166 million pieces of data with 13 000 lines of code using supercomputers. The outputs from the report will therefore be underpinned by quantitative analyses based on field measurements of coral cover around the world that extend back as far as the 1970s.

More than 500 million people worldwide rely on coral reefs for their livelihoods and well-being. This staggering number of dependents underlines just how important the GCRMN’s work is, by providing us with a means of monitoring the progress made towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For coral reefs, these include taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (SDG-13) and conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development (SDG-14). The work is also important for measuring the Convention on Biological Diversity’s target of minimising the multiple anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs caused by climate change or ocean acidification (Aichi Biodiversity Target 10). The enormous amount of information on coral reefs that has been condensed into the GCRMN report provides one more important piece in the intricate puzzle that we need to solve, to live in the healthy, happy, poverty-free and environmentally sustainable world envisaged in the SDGs.