United Nations
Environment Programme

Urgent Need for Sustainable Management of Coral Reefs

In the past few days we’ve had some shocking news on the global extent of coral bleaching.

An extensive aerial and underwater survey of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) revealed that 93 per cent of it has been affected, with about half of the reefs severely bleached. Now come reports of widespread bleaching in the Lakshadweep archipelago, which lies 200-440 km off the southwestern coast of mainland India.

Scientists say the bleaching there could only get worse, since May tends to be warmer than April. The threshold for corals before they start bleaching is around 30 degrees Celsius.

In Australia, India and around the world, coral reefs and related ecosystems are under increasing threat from pollution, over-fishing, climate change, and ocean acidification.

Coral bleaching is caused primarily by ocean warming (93 per cent of climate change heat is absorbed by the ocean). High water temperatures cause corals to drive out an algae called zooxanthellae, which provides corals with much of their energy as well as their bright and varied colours. The corals can die if conditions do not return to normal.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the third global bleaching event in October 2015 and it has already become the longest event recorded, impacting some reefs in consecutive years.

“Coral reefs are extraordinary and critically important ecosystems, but they are severely impacted by rising ocean temperatures and acidity”, says UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “The recent bleaching we've seen globally, and particularly on the Great Barrier Reef, is distressing from an environmental point of view. But it is equally concerning because of its potential impact on lives and livelihoods.”

An opportunity for action

“Most reef degradation to date has been driven by direct anthropogenic stress”, says UNEP coral reef expert Jerker Tamelander. “Most coral reefs will face repeated, severe bleaching in the coming decades even if mitigation targets in the Paris Agreement are met.”

A draft resolution, proposed by Indonesia and co-sponsored by Norway and Palau, to be debated at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) from 23-27 May 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya, is an opportunity for discussion and action.

“There is truly no time to waste, and UNEA is an opportunity to accelerate action on safeguarding our planet”, says Steiner.

The draft resolution “calls for national, regional and international initiatives, cooperation and commitments to conserve and sustainably manage coral reefs, including cold-water coral reefs and mangrove forests that contribute to food security and nutrition for peoples’ livelihoods”.

Among other things, the draft resolution also:
Encourages governments to prioritize coral reef conservation and sustainable management, including through the establishment and active management of marine protected areas, as well as through other actions that may enhance climate change resilience;

Recognizes that education, capacity building and knowledge transfer on the importance of coral reefs and related ecosystems is crucial;

Encourages Governments to implement integrated and ecosystem-based coral reef management, and to further develop public-private partnerships with industry, including fisheries, aquaculture and tourism, and civil society, to protect and sustainably manage coral reefs and related ecosystems and raise awareness;

Requests UNEP to analyse global and regional coral reef policy and governance arrangements and provide recommendations on enhanced protection; and

Requests UNEP to support regional coral reef assessments as well as the preparation of a global report on coral reef status and trends, through the International Coral Reef Initiative’s Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, contributing to tracking of progress towards international targets.

On the agenda since at least 1994

The coral reef issue has long been on the agenda of environmentalists and recognized as important by the United Nations. In 2000, UNEP established its Coral Reef Unit in UNEP’s Regional Office in Bangkok. The Unit works through a global partnership with the Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans, and other institutions on joint development of tools and methods which enable ecosystem-based approaches to coral reef management; regional- and national-level policy support and demonstration projects to facilitate adoption and uptake; as well as capacity building and networking to promote exchange of best practice.

The Coral Reef Unit also represents UNEP in the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), established in 1994 to preserve coral reefs and related ecosystems around the world.

Why are coral reefs important?

Coral reefs occur in over 100 countries worldwide, including most Small Island Developing States and many Least Developed Countries. About half a billion people draw direct benefits from them, and they contribute significantly to the GDP of many countries through tourism and other industries. However, two thirds of the world’s coral reefs are under immediate and direct threat from human activities, and all reefs are increasingly threatened by climate change.

The UN 2012 document “The Future We Want” recognizes the environmental importance of coral reefs, something which is also reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 14: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

The internationally agreed Aichi Biodiversity Targets also stress the importance of coral reefs. This is evident in both Target 10, which calls for “the multiple anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs…[to be] minimized”, and Target 11, which calls for “at least…10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, [to be] conserved” by 2020.

What is UNEP doing?

UNEP promotes the use of sound science to apply ecosystem management to support ecosystem services in marine and coastal areas. UNEP’s partnership work on coral reefs focuses on:

  • building coral reef resilience in the face of climate change and ocean acidification
  • strengthening the use of the value of coral reef ecosystem services in public and private decision-making
  • enhancing data and information for ecosystem-based coral reef planning and management; and
  • institutional support and outreach.

UNEP recently launched its Green Fins Toolbox in Singapore to highlight how recreational diving can protect fragile marine biodiversity threatened by growing coastal tourism, and support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As part of the project, internationally acclaimed cartoonist Jim Toomey collaborated with UNEP and the Reef-World Foundation to produce a new video on sustainable dive tourism.

The video illustrates the many benefits of, and potential environmental risks associated with, recreational diving. It features a certification programme called Green Fins, which was developed in partnership between UNEP and the Reef-World Foundation.

UNEP’s Marine and Coastal Ecosystems Branch (MCEB) provides a comprehensive institutional and programmatic framework for regional and global cooperation for the protection of the marine environment. It hosts the Marine and Coastal Ecosystems Unit (MCEU), the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land based Activities (GPA), and the Regional Seas Programme (RSP).