Stopping coral reef degradation

The future of coral reefs is unknown.

Coral reef ecosystems are critical to the survival of many species on earth including humans, about 4,000 species of fish and more than a quarter of all marine life.

In the first webinar of a new series by the OIST Foundation titled U.S.-Japan Science Synergy Series, FIU Institute of Environment associate professor Jose Eirin-Lopez and Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University professor Timothy Ravasi explained the complicated nature of coral reefs and how they may be able to survive a rapidly changing world.

Coral reef ecosystems have profound impacts on tourism and commercial fishing. Unfortunately, these “rainforests of the sea” are very sensitive to environmental changes and severely threatened by climate change and other human-derived pressures. Many coral reef species cannot survive a slight change in water temperature or small deviations in nutrients or pH levels, causing ocean acidification. This is a pivotal time in history where the pace of climate change is accelerating due to human impacts, resulting in negative effects for oceans worldwide.

Since reefs cannot simply pack up and move somewhere more comfortable, they must try to adapt, Eirin-Lopez said. One of the coolest and most mysterious tools at their disposal to overcome these environmental changes may be a mechanism known as “environmental memory,” allowing corals to reenact responses from their past that have helped them survive prior threatening situations.

The webinar highlighted several important points for stopping coral reef degradation:

  • Humans must reduce CO2 emissions.
  • Governments must implement more rigorous regulations for fisheries, tourism and coastal development that directly impact coral reef communities.
  • Awareness about the severe threat coral reef ecosystems face must be increased, especially in communities that depend directly on coral reefs for their livelihoods. There must be enhanced education and outreach on the topic.
  • Scientists, with the support of governments and social leaders, should be focusing on restoration efforts for resilient corals and providing assisted evolution for coral ecosystems.

Eirin-Lopez is studying how corals are fighting climate change at a molecular level, investigating marine environmental epigenetics in Caribbean reefs in Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as in Pacific Reefs in French Polynesia.

Ravasi simulates future ocean conditions in the laboratory to understand how marine organisms will respond across generations to climate change and how specific areas like Papua New Guinea are adapting to already changing conditions.

The webinar is available online: “Future of Coral: Climate Change and Coral Reefs in the U.S. and Okinawa.” and was supported by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the FIU Institute of Environment.