Ninety percent of all the coral reefs in our oceans are set to disappear by 2050 – that is the shocking figure that has led to the launch of a new global initiative to try to save coral reefs.
The 50 Reefs campaign brings ocean, climate and marine scientists and conservationists together to tackle the damage being caused to coral reefs by climate change, pollution and poor fishing practices.
The initiative aims to identify 50 of the "most critical” reefs that have the best chance of surviving climate change and could aid in the revitalization of other reef ecosystems once global temperatures have stabilized.
"It's based on the best science. It's saying we will only have 10 percent left, but let's make sure those 10 percent have the best chance of survival,” said the initiative's head scientist, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg.
Biodiversity in peril
Over the past few years, scientists have reported record bleaching of some of the world's largest coral reefs. Last year, the largest die-off ever recorded of the Great Barrier Reef took place with 67 percent of shallow-water corals lost over a period of eight to nine months.
Coral reefs can only survive within a narrow temperature range and so are dying off as the ocean gets warmer. This also threatens thousands of species of fish and other marine animals that rely on the coral as a habitat and for food. At the same time, it could have an impact on the wider ecosystem.
But as well as having a devastating effect on biodiversity, scientists warn that it could also impact livelihoods connected to reefs. Corals generate between three and 400 billion US dollars worth of food and jobs from tourism, fisheries and medicines, according to research cited by the 50 Reefs initiative in a statement.
Save some, save them all
Scientists working with 50 Reefs plan to present a list of the high priority coral reefs by the end of 2017 before identifying strategies for protection crafted for each region, to raise awareness with regards to individual reefs and encourage marine protection of those areas.
"The intention is to grow this number over time, based on success and availability of resources. It is large enough to allow protection of reefs in all major regions and to make a real difference in the long-term recovery of coral reefs around the world,” said Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia.
But other scientists are not so confident of the scheme. Kim Detloff, head of marine conservation at the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), praised the initiative, but said that it is a strategy that could not be used in isolation.
"It might be an important step to raise awareness of the dramatic decline we see in our oceans,” he told DW. "But to concentrate on only 50 reefs counteracts what we are trying to do in other initiatives to tackle global warming.”
Detloff referred particularly to an agreement to turn 10 percent of the world's oceans into marine protected areas by 2020 with many organizations aiming for at least 30 percent. "It might be ok to focus on 50 reefs, but it has to be integrated with saving the ocean's biodiversity in general.”
The launch of the initiative came just a day after an international team of scientists in Australia reported that six of the ocean's biodiversity hotspots were some of the hardest hit by global warming and industrial fishing.
Published in the journal Science Advances, the team studied more than 2,100 species of fish, seabirds, marine mammals and plankton to identify the world's underwater super-zoos - four of which are found in the Pacific Ocean.
"In those hotspots, changes are already happening,” said study co-author Andre Chiaradia, a senior scientist and penguin expert at the Phillip Island Nature Park in Australia. "They are the most at risk.”
Chiaradia pointed to penguins as an example. Populations have fallen dramatically by around 90 percent in the last two decades as a result of warming temperature and changing currents.