Climate change has had a devastating effect on coral reef coverage across the world. Overfishing, pollution, and other activities have also increased the effect. Now, researchers have offered the first comprehensive global look at what these impacts on coral reefs mean for ecosystem services: for instance, the ability of the reef to provide essential benefits and services to humans.
Overall, the findings, published in the journal One Earth this week, show that the significant loss in coral reef coverage has led to an equally significant loss in the ability of the reef to provide basic services, including food and livelihoods. For the study, the researchers conducted a global analysis of trends in coral reefs and associated ecosystem services including, living coral cover, associated fisheries catches and effort, coral reef associated biodiversity and seafood consumption by coastal Indigenous peoples, among other things.
“Coral reefs are known to be important habitats for biodiversity and are particularly sensitive to climate change, as marine heat waves can cause bleaching events,” said Tyler Eddy, a research scientist at the Fisheries & Marine Institute, Memorial University of Newfoundland who was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans & Fisheries when he started this research, a news release explains.
To explore these various aspects of the reef ecosystem, the researchers combined datasets from coral reef surveys, looked at coral-reef-associated biodiversity, fishery impacts on the food web structure, to analyze global and country level trends in ecosystem services. The data show that the global coverage of living corals has declined by about half since the 1950s and so has the capacity of coral reefs to provide ecosystem services. The findings say the catches of fishes on the coral reef reached its peak nearly two decades ago and has been in decline ever since despite an increase in fishing effort.
A more significant finding said that the diversity of species on the reef has declined by more than 60%. “This study speaks to the importance of how we manage coral reefs not only at regional scales, but also at the global scale, and the livelihoods of communities that rely on them,” William Cheung, professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans & Fisheries and senior author of the study adds in the release. The researchers say continued degradation of reef coverage in the years to come now threatens the well-being and sustainable development of human communities on the coast that depend on them.