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UNEP calls for policy, funding to save coral reefs

Coral reefs. Great barrier reef.
Great barrier reef. Photo by The Ocean Agency.

The ocean is facing a perfect storm of pollution, overfishing, and climate change. These threats have pushed ecosystems such as coral reefs to the tipping point of collapse. UNEP is inspiring nations and individuals to take action. In Kenya, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute is leading in restoring degraded coral.

UN Environment Programme is calling on governments to create laws to protect coral reefs. UNEP also seeks to raise money required to save coral reefs in a campaign called Ocean League.

Ms Leticia Carvalho, UNEP head of marine and freshwater, said the crisis facing the ocean is one of the biggest environmental issues.

“We need to be far more creative in our approach to create a groundswell of popular support and action for the ocean,” she said.

The campaign invites individuals, leaders, organisations and brands to join a global movement supporting greater ocean protection.

What is the campaign about?

UNEP says in a desperate attempt to survive increasing ocean heat waves due to climate change, some corals glow in vibrant colour. The corals produce brightly coloured chemicals in their flesh that act as a sunscreen.

UNEP says corals glow in fluorescent colours to protect themselves from rising ocean temperatures.

The UN agency says that these “spectacular sights” have gone largely unnoticed.

Thus, UNEP launched the drive on 20 August to bring to the world’s attention these fragile ecosystems. UNEP is working with The Ocean Agency and creative partner Adobe.

Mr Richard Vevers, chief executive officer, The Ocean Agency, said ocean conservation is rarely prioritised although ocean is important to all life.

“We know that a positive show of mass support, including global brands and celebrities, can inspire the policy and funding commitments we need from governments,” he said.

Ocean League pledge for greater ocean protection is powered by Adobe Sign making it easy to access and e-sign from any device.

Additionally, Adobe has created specially designed ocean-themed Adobe Photoshop Camera lenses. This gives everyone the opportunity to immerse themselves in underwater worlds and share creative imagery to show their support.

Why save coral reefs?

The campaign, Ocean League, gives a number of reasons to save coral reefs.

  • A billion people rely on coral reefs for food and income
  • They support a quarter of all ocean life
  • They contribute $375 billion (Sh40.5 trillion) per year to the global economy
  • They are a vital source of new medicines
  • They protect our coastlines

The campaign reports that in the last 30 years, half of the world’s corals have died and the situation is getting worse.

What is the condition of Kenya’s coral reefs?

Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute is the government’s research firm that gives information on protecting, managing and conserving ocean ecosystems including coral reefs.

The institute says that Kenya’s coral reefs are in “fair” condition. Reefs dominated by algae is more than 35 per cent while reefs dominated by hard coral cover is estimated at less than 25 per cent.

Thus, Kenya’s reefs are dominated by algae than hard coral cover. Healthy and functional reefs usually have more hard coral cover and less algae cover.

Dr Jelvas Mwaura, head of coral reef research team, said that reefs under effective management or protection, especially those in marine park and community conservation areas, had higher hard coral cover. Also, the institute’s monitoring found focal fish species abundance and less algal cover.

“Conversely, open access (fished reefs) had low hard coral cover (less than eight per cent), lower focal fish abundance and high algal turf cover,” Dr Mwaura said.

Focal fish refers to the few fish species ocean researchers focus on because of their importance in understanding state of more complex marine community.  Examples are groupers, snappers, sweetlips (because of their commercial value) and trigger fish, parrot fish and surgeon fish (because of their ecological importance).

In Kenya, unprecedented increase in sea-surface temperature in 1998 caused devastating destruction to coral reefs by causing bleaching mortality. This decreased coral cover by 50-90 per cent with some individual sites undergoing complete loss of coral cover.

Dr Mwaura said there have been subsequent bleaching in 2010 and 2016, even though not to the scales of the 1998 bleaching. This caused further decline of coral reef communities in Kenya.

Overfishing, illegal and destructive fishing, sedimentation and pollution are also threatening coral reefs. Corals flourish very well in environment that has clear water, relatively shallow for sunlight penetration to allow photosynthesis and free from sediments, Dr Mwaura said.

He said there were mounting evidences that the reefs are at a tipping point and could shift from coral-dominated reefs to algal reefs.  If this happens, the valuable ecosystem services provided by coral reefs will be lost.

Dr Mwaura asked authorities to draw suitable policies and management priorities to avoid losing this crucial ecosystem services provided by coral reefs.

READ – Kenya using low technology to restore coral reefs

What is Kenya doing to protects its corals?

Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute is helping protect coral reefs by doing research on reef resilience to fishing, climate change, pollution and sedimentation. It identifies reefs which could be conserved under marine protected areas.

The institute is helping setting up and strengthening marine protection areas and community conservation areas. This is to increase reef areas under management.

The last five years have seen increased interest in restoring degraded reefs.  Most of the reefs have lost their reef-forming corals and reef structure has collapsed. This has led to fall in fisheries habitat and biodiversity as well as livelihoods of those who largely depend on them when healthy.

The institute started a community based, low-technology reef restoration methods in Wasini Island, located in southern Kenya (Indian Ocean). It engaged local community in rehabilitating a one-hectare area through coral gardening concepts.

Coral fragments removed from resilient reefs (reefs which survived previous bleaching impacts) are first farmed or cultured in mid-water nurseries. After they grow to a suitable size they are transplanted to artificial reef structures such as cheaply constructed concrete blocks or coral boulders.

Over 8,000 coral fragments were transplanted and after one year of monitoring, the project was considered successful. Over 77 per cent survived and increased fish abundance within restored site.

“This initiative is in the process of developing a low-tech, community based reef restoration tool kit that will trigger upscaling this restoration efforts,” Dr Mwaura said. “Consequently halt, and reverse the degradation of reefs in other parts of the region.”

About Kaburu Mugambi

Kaburu Mugambi is a veteran of business reporting having worked with two national newspapers in Kenya. He is a graduate of economics from Kenyatta University. He started his journalism career in 2000 with The People Daily as a business reporter before becoming a business sub-editor. He joined Daily Nation in 2004 as a business writer. He holds a post-graduate diploma in mass communication from University of Nairobi's School of Journalism and an MBA in marketing from the same university. In 2016, he founded Water Tower, a media firm focused on water, energy and climate. Its content cuts across water, energy and climate with emphasis on adaptation and sustainability.

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