70 years of helping people to care for our ocean

The 15th International Coral Reef Symposium 2022

Dr Sean Porter

The International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), the world’s premier coral reef symposium, was recently held in Bremen, Germany. This is the first time the ICRS has been held in Europe. The conference usually takes place every four years and was last held in Hawaii in 2016. This follows a postponement in 2020, a virtual conference in 2021 and finally a face-to-face meeting in 2022! The conference is usually attended by ~4000 scientists but this year, due to constraints related to the Covid pandemic, about 1100 participants met. Via a concentrated week of oral presentations, posters and workshops, the world’s top coral scientists shared their research. For the first time ever, the symposium achieved net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, even after the flights of all participants had been considered. Furthermore, in the interest of minimising the overall impact of the symposium on the environment, only vegetarian lunches were served!

The opening ceremony was well received with a series of in situ speeches from guests which included the local mayor of Bremen, the German Federal Environment Minister and his Serene Highness the Prince of Monaco, Prince Albert II. Prince Albert has been a staunch supporter of coral reef conservation for many years having initiated the Global Fund for Coral Reefs and in his speech recognised that it was largely first world nations that were contributing to climate change, but that every nation could play a part in mitigating the impacts of climate change. As the oceans have been the most stable environment on the planet, coral reefs are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature and chemistry resulting from climate change and in effect act as a canary in a coal mine, but in this case a barometer for global climate change.

During the previous ICRS in Hawaii, it was well acknowledged that the ‘elephant in the room’ was climate change and that this was the biggest global-scale threat to coral reefs. In line with this, a major focus of many of the presentations during this ICRS, were related to what coral scientists refer to as the Decadal Grand Challenge. The Decadal Grand Challenge is the current ten-year period (2020-2030) where emphasis and efforts need to be put on formulating policies and solutions to deal with climate change and local coral reef stressors such as pollution, that are devastating coral reefs and putting them on the road to extinction this century. Three key components have been recognised by the global coral reef community that are required in tandem to save coral reefs and it is imperative that these start to be implemented this decade if the global community has any hope of halting coral reef extinction this century. The three components of the Decadal Grand Challenge are i) reduce global climate change threats, ii) improve local conditions to build resilience, and iii) invest in active restoration to enhance recovery. Currently, model projections indicate that up to 30% of coral reefs will persist through this century if we limit global warming by 1.5°C.

Cooperation and dialogue between science and politics was recognised as being so important that an entire day of the conference was dedicated to this. These sessions shed light on the fact that there isn’t a lack of ideas and proposals from the scientific community, but rather a lack of communication with decision-makers from politics, business, and civil society that ultimately results in inaction. Prof. Andréa Grottoli, President of the International Coral Reef Society was quoted as saying “Scientists must move toward politics and politics toward science. If they can meet in the middle, it’s already a big win.”

The Oceanographic Research Institutes contributions to this conference included presentations on genetic connectivity in coral species within and between marine protected areas in KwaZulu-Natal as well as a regional update on the status and trends of coral reefs in the western Indian Ocean. It is important to have good information on coral population connectivity as a network of well-connected marine protected areas facilitates genetic transfer between populations thereby enhancing their resilience against climate change and may play a role in mitigating the impact of climate change as it could allow corals to shift to relatively cooler protected areas as the oceans warm. The second presentation focused on how coral cover, algae and temperature has changed across regions over the last 30 years and what policy needs to be formulated to maximise resilience in coral reefs to give them the best chance of persisting during global warming this century.