David Obura: ‘We are not doing enough to combat the decline of coral reefs’

Dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and overexploitation is key to sustainability

David off the coast of Madagascar, recording data on the health of coral reefs

David Obura documenting the health of coral reefs while diving off the coast of Madagascar. (Image: Keith Ellenbogen)

The Economist World Ocean Summit in Abu Dhabi this month brought together policymakers, business and tech leaders, scientists and civil society groups to discuss the threats to the world’s oceans, and how to create a sustainable ocean economy.

David Obura, IUCN specialist in the study of coral reefs
(Image: David Obura)

One of the experts we interviewed was David Obura, director of CORDIO East Africa (Coastal Oceans Research and Development – Indian Ocean), a non-profit research organisation based in Kenya. David is also chair of the coral specialist group at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. We asked him about the outlook for coral reefs.

Why does coral matter in global conservation terms?

It matters because corals are the architects of coral reef ecosystems in shallow tropical waters. Because of their location and how they grow, they are one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems. They also provide amongst the highest levels of benefit to people – in poor countries in particular, but in rich ones too – in terms of fisheries, tourism and coastal protection.

What is the current status of coral? 

The latest science is that even with the Paris climate agreement [to hold global warming] to 1.5C, we will lose 70-90% of coral reefs, and at 2C we are likely to lose all coral reefs. That’s as a globally connected ecosystem – there may be coral reefs that survive in some pockets but they will be quite rare. And there will be some places with a few corals surviving, growing on rocky reefs and reef surfaces, but they won’t be constructing a reef ecosystem in the same way as we have been used to.

What does this mean for our oceans?

Twenty five per cent of all marine species are supposed to spend part of their life cycle on a coral reef. What it means for that 25% of species we don’t entirely know. We won’t lose all of them of course, but many will lose a key part of their life cycle. And the productivity of tropical coastlines will go down significantly, so the benefits received to those countries will be much reduced.

What are we doing to combat decline?

We’re not doing enough. There are two main areas. One is global, and that’s carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. We’re still on the bad side of these scenarios if we want to save coral reefs. Second is all the local threats to reefs, basically based on population – the number of people and economic activity. Both of these are growing through the roof without any real policies about bringing them under control. So we’re worsening the situation for reefs across the board. There is a lot of conservation action – marine protected areas, and things we are discussing here at this conference. But we’re not really dealing with the fundamentals.

Are there any emerging technology solutions? 

There is a lot of research currently on restoration and improving the prospects for corals and coral reefs, and I’m a scientist so I certainly support research. But the truth is at the moment none of the actions really restore ecological function on a reef. You can grow individual corals, and you can grow 10,000 corals, but they don’t really restore the functions of the reef. So you can’t go in and claim to a fishing community, for example, that you can restore the fisheries that they used to have by restoring their coral reef, because we can’t do that.

Coral reefs photographed by David Obura
(Image: David Obura)

Are there some coral reefs that are more important than others to save? 

There is a project called the 50 reefs to identify the most in-need reef areas, and even [narrowing it down] created a lot of controversy. The key reef regions really are the Coral Triangle in Southeast Asia, some of the main Pacific island areas, in the Indian Ocean we have identified the northern Mozambique channel as a key area for connectivity and diversity of coral reefs, and some areas in the Red Sea and South Asia as well.

What about the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is the poster child for coral reefs because it’s the biggest one. But really the most diverse reefs are in the Indonesia and Philippine regions. For species diversity, and connectivity to other reef areas, that really is the most important reef area in the world.

There has been a lot of talk at this conference about the blue economy and making our seas more productive. How do you see coral fitting into that?

Corals are a core part of what the blue economy should be about, and the blue economy should be about sustainable investments. A discussion has come up here on mangroves and blue carbon and paying for the ecosystem services that mangroves, sea grasses and coral reefs provide. If we do that, if we really invest the money to ensure those services are sustained then that’s what the blue economy means to me. Coral reefs – because they support so much of national and local economies they are a central part of the blue economy – but we’re not yet financing to make sure their productivity remains intact.

Tell us about your CORDIO East Africa project

CORDIO is a research organisation, we’re a non-profit registered in Kenya. We work at the regional level in eastern Africa and the western Indian Ocean, so it’s about 10 countries. It’s a coral reef region that’s quite well defined. And we are trying to support consistent monitoring across all countries. We are trying to do research to help understand the climate vulnerability of coral reefs and also what needs to be done for sustainable fisheries – local, small-scale fisheries that are “climate-smart” and can survive the pressures of climate change as well, and advise on the policy and management necessary to sustain reefs.

Is there a strong political will in this region for preserving reefs? 

In our region we have political interests in coral reefs and the ocean because a lot of poor people depend on fishing and live by the sea. Also, with the reality of African development we are looking for growth so the ocean economy is really being looked at as a solution for the future. But we have to do it right. We don’t yet have the political will to do it sustainably.