28 June 2018
Dr Hawthorne Beyer is a quantitative ecologist working on conservation and environmental management problems.
Above: Dr Hawthorne Beyer is a quantitative ecologist working on conservation and environmental management problems.

Scientists have identified a portfolio of the world’s reefs most likely to survive the coming decades, using principles from the financial investment world.

University of Queensland researchers collaborated with 18 international experts to identify reefs that could be less vulnerable to climate change, yet are well positioned to help regenerate surrounding, less fortunate coral reefs.

UQ Global Change Institute Director Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said coral reefs had been, and would continue to be, differently impacted by climate change.

“The identification of reefs with the best opportunity to survive over coming decades may hold the key to the long-term survival and recovery of reefs everywhere,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“Despite high levels of uncertainty, it may be possible to both identify and prioritise investment in these reefs, in a similar way asset managers deal with the investment risks associated with financial portfolios.”

UQ’s Dr Emma Kennedy said significant research had focused on the loss of corals, but the reefs most likely to survive could represent important conservation opportunities.

“These reefs urgently require protection from other non-climate change related stresses, such as overfishing, pollution, and land-based sedimentation,” Dr Kennedy said.

“We know that heat stress and storms are two of the major climate-related threats to reefs, and we used the latest global datasets to map which locations might have a better chance of surviving the coming decades.

“Of these reefs, it is those that are well placed to supply other reefs with larvae that could be crucially important to the survival of coral reefs in the future.”

Dr Hawthorne Beyer said accounting for uncertainty in predicted future conditions allowed the researchers to reduce the risk of widespread failure across the portfolio, with only a small impact on the expected benefits.

“Now we must assess the portfolio alongside field knowledge, local threats and political opportunity in these places,” Dr Beyer said.

“Where appropriate, we should strengthen existing conservation efforts and invest in new efforts in these regions.

“The past three years of exceptional heat stress has taken a heavy toll on the world's coral reefs.

“While this work provides a new approach and vision for prioritising conservation investments, existing coral reef conservation initiatives remain critical for providing benefits at more local scales.”

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said it was imperative to achieve Paris Climate Agreement goals to have any chance of saving coral reefs.

“What many people don't realise is that coral reefs are still going to experience extremely challenging times, even if we do achieve international targets on greenhouse gas emission reductions of this crucial UN agreement.

“It will be essential for reef scientists and conservation specialists to reach out to people, governments and industries in these regions to better mitigate or manage ongoing local threats.

“We have already seen very significant interest in our framework and we are keen to develop partnerships to fulfill the vision of coral reefs regenerating this century.

“Hopefully, this global strategy will act as a rallying cry for us all to act and save these beautiful and important ecosystems.”

The research is published in Conservation Letters.

Media: Ron Hohenhaus, UQ Global Change Institute, gcicomms@uq.edu.au, 0438 285 283.

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