What we learned about coral reefs in 2019

And how we can protect them in this new decade

Coral reefs are some of the most beautifully complex systems on the planet. Unfortunately, they’re breaking because of pollution, overexploitation, and the climate crisis.

Thanks to science and fieldwork over 2019 we learned even more about the state of coral reefs and the people who depend on them. While most of what we’ve learned is grim, there are places of hopeful determination fueled by a vision that all is not lost.

In this new decade, there’s much we can do to protect coral reefs and the wildlife and people that depend on them for survival. Here’s what we’ve learned about these magnificent ecosystems and what actions we need to take in 2020.

The ocean is getting too warm for many corals

The climate warning light is no longer flashing on and off—it is permanently glowing red. In September the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautioned that even if governments are able to reduce emissions and limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5°C—an extremely optimistic scenario given current commitments and ambition—anywhere from 70% to 90% of tropical coral reefs could be lost by 2100. And if the world fails to keep warming from reaching 2°C, almost no reefs will survive.

This isn’t entirely unexpected, but it is an important, if hard-to-stomach, reminder. A few years ago I co-authored a paper that projected nearly all coral reefs would experience annual bleaching by 2050. Given what we know today, that may have been a conservative estimate.

Localized threats further weaken reefs

We’re also losing coral reefs to local problems, like pollution in run-off and harmful fishing practices. These threats make reefs less resilient to withstanding warming and acidifying waters brought on by the climate crisis.

This year we learned that fish fences—a technique used commonly in tropical coastal communities to indiscriminately trap fish with changing tides—are doing more damage to coral reef ecosystems than previously thought. The number of reef fish declined by about half in some places due to fish fences that catch vulnerable species and the smallest fish.

Communities are engaged and empowered

Losing access to fish threatens the survival of thousands of coastal communities. More than 850 million people live close to coral reefs and benefit from the food, jobs, and protection they provide. Those services are estimated to be worth $375 billion every year, though in reality when all benefits to people are considered, that value is likely to be significantly higher.

Providing support for these communities to help them identify the best fishing methods, for example, is one of the most effective ways to conserve coastal marine environments and set up them up to have the best shot at surviving climate change.

Rescue the reefs that can bring the ocean back to life

“Losing coral reefs isn’t just a problem in coastal communities—it is a global issue. ”

Gabby Ahmadia
Director, Marine Conservation Science, Oceans

Losing coral reefs isn’t just a problem in coastal communities—it is a global issue. The entire world must take action to give reefs a chance because the challenge is far too great for any single group to go it alone.

In the summer of 2019 I joined a group of 80 scientists to publish a paper that identified the best strategies for saving reefs in an age of a rapidly warming climate. Protecting those coral reefs that have been exposed to less intense climate disturbances while recovering those reefs that are likely to function again is a smart way to deploy limited resources. At the same time, in those regions where coral reefs cannot be protected or recovered, we must help local communities shift away from jobs and economies that depend on reefs.

WWF has taken an integrated approach to ensure intact, connected coastal ecosystems are protected and restored, and coastal communities are benefitting from equitable and effective management as well as the sustainable harvest of marine resources. We’ve focused our efforts locally in places like Indonesia, the Northern Mozambique Channel, and the Mesoamerican Reef, and at the same time helped form a global coalition of organizations working on an initiative called Coral Reef Rescue, designed to provide the resources and political will to support communities in saving key regenerative reefs.

Last year I traveled to Indonesia, coastal east Africa and Madagascar, and in every community, I encountered a drive to do whatever it takes to protect coral reefs, as well as mangroves, and the benefits they provide. Now we need to match that local energy with a global movement.

We can save coral reefs but we only have about 10 years left to do it. This year we need to focus our efforts and work harder than ever before.

Learn more about what you can do to help save the ocean and all the life that depends on it.