June 29, 2016

Story: Pacific Island leaders’ call for action to save coral reefs answered by scientific experts

Read the official call to action and scientific response here

By Kristen Weiss

Pacific Island leaders have sent a clear message to the international community: coral reefs are rapidly declining, and humanity must act now to protect what remains in order to perpetuate the numerous benefits to the people and cultures who depend on them.

Mid-June, the Presidents of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands held a Summit with scientific experts—including several faculty members from Stanford University—during the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium.


Pacific Island leaders and scientists presented a call to action for coral reef protection at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu, Hawaii. Left to right: Robert H. Richmond, the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa; Vernon Kalani Quiocho, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries; Solomon P. Kaho'ohalahala, Maunalei Community Managed Makai Area; Glen Joseph, Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority; Eugene Joseph, Conservation Society of Pohnpei; and Noah Idechong, Senior Advisor to the Palau Minister of Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism (Photo: Kristen Weiss).

 

Out of the summit, the three presidents released a call to action requesting immediate assistance from the scientific community to improve coral reef protection. During the past few decades, coral reef health in the Pacific has declined because of pollution, overfishing, acidification and bleaching due to climate change.

“Coral reefs are the foundation of life in our island nations,” the three presidents state in their signed call to action. “They are extremely important for our food security, economic well-being, livelihoods, protection from natural disasters, and cultural identity and traditions.”

In the letter, the Micronesian leaders make a bold commitment to coral reef stewardship. They identify several immediate actions including: basing policies on sound science, bridging science with traditional knowledge, building upon existing national and regional networks to expand networks of protected areas and strengthening the technical and financial capacities of Pacific island nations.

Former Speaker of the Palau National Congress and Ministry of Natural Resources Senior Advisor, Noah Idechong said, “We see no alternative but to act now. We urgently need to protect our coral reefs. Our political leaders are ready, and fortunately these leading scientists are willing to support them.”

In response to the call to action, a group of leading coral reef scientists from around the world, including Professors Larry Crowder, Steve Palumbi and Rob Dunbar of Stanford University, pledged their support to link science to policy action to better manage and protect coral reefs.

These experts represent an international team of highly qualified natural and social scientists, engineers and lawyers who promise to “fully engage and support national leaders in their bold policy actions to address urgent threats to coral reefs” by providing scientific advice, technical assistance, capacity building and other site-based support to help better manage and protect coral reefs.


A fishing closure in a managed coral reef system ends with a harvest for a traditional feast, Photo: Contact ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies for use.

“This summit forged a novel and strong commitment to action by the leaders and equally strong support from the scientific community. It is time to stop talking and start doing what is necessary to make our reefs more resilient to climate change,” said Larry Crowder, science director for the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University.

“In the wake of COP 21 where 196 countries committed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, we have a historic opportunity transform reefs to be more climate resistant. This is critically necessary for reef ecosystems and the people who depend on healthy, productive reefs,” he continued.

Coral reefs around the world have recently bleached and are dying at alarming rates due to sustained elevated seawater temperatures associated with the 2015-2016 El Niño Southern Oscillation event. These devastating impacts include an estimated 90% bleaching and 50% mortality of the northern coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia. In light of climate change, it is imperative that other threats, such as pollution and overfishing, are minimized so that reefs are more likely to survive and rebound from the impacts of climate change.

“The urgency to act is clear, along with the mandate from the Pacific Island Leaders. The community of coral reef scientists, managers, policy makers, lawyers and stakeholders must come together to apply knowledge to action and push for the political will critical to leaving a legacy of vital reefs for the future,” said Robert Richmond, Professor at University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and Director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory.

Despite the challenges ahead for conserving Pacific Island communities and natural resources, Idechong is optimistic that strong partnerships between science and policy will bring positive change.

“We are fortunate to be working with really great scientists who believe in the things Palau is doing and have supported us for a very long time. That’s why we’ve been making a lot of progress,” he said.


Noah Idechong, Senior Advisor to the Minister of Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism in Palau, presents the Micronesian leaders' call to action for coral reef protection at the International Coral Reef Symposium (photo: Kristen Weiss).

 

“In the old days we could use our tradition and that would be enough for us,” continued Idechong, “but there is no traditional knowledge to explain climate change in Palau, so we need the science to help explain how we should best manage our reefs.”

Pacific nation leaders acknowledge that they have lacked the institutional, financial, and human capacity in the past to adequately protect their coral reefs. Despite these challenges, they recognize that inaction to the threats facing coral reefs is not an option.

“I’m going to take back what I learned from participants at the Leaders’ Forum this week to my island and see how we can strengthen our science-based management to help communities improve decisions to protect their reefs,” said Eugene Joseph, Executive Director of the Conservation Society of Pohnpei.

“We’ve been working on reef management at the community level for 16 years,” said Joseph. “What we want to see now is state level policies better reflecting what the communities are doing on the ground.”

While the Leaders’ Forum participants expressed optimism for better management of Pacific coral reefs in the future, they emphasize that even the strongest conservation efforts won’t be enough to save coral reefs unless nations globally reduce fossil fuel emissions and make more concerted efforts to protect ocean ecosystems.

“We need the world change their attitude,” Idechong explained. “Palau is a small place. If the boat sinks, we sink with it. We will be the first ones under water. Our actions will never be enough, but at least we can prolong livelihoods for our people and make sure we are doing the best we can while we work on bigger picture change."

Said Idechong, “We cannot just rely on hope. We need to change hope to action. We need to change our leaders’ attitudes. That’s what I believe in.”

If you would like additional information regarding this story, please contact:

Larry Crowder,
Science Director at Center for Ocean Solutions,
Stanford University
Phone: 831-402-6938
Email: larry.crowder@stanford.edu

Robert (Bob) Richmond,
Professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
Phone: 808-539-7330
Email: richmond@hawaii.edu

For more information on the International Society for Reef Studies click here.

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