Bright spots shine light on the future of coral reefs

Brain coral in Florida. Source: Flickr CC, Lara Danielle.

Researchers have discovered a handful of ‘bright spots’ among the world’s embattled coral reefs, offering the promise of new approaches to conservation.

In one of the largest global studies of its kind, researchers at James Cook University and UBC conducted over 6,000 reef surveys in 46 countries across the globe, and discovered 15 locations where, against all the odds, there were a lot more fish on coral reefs than expected.

“Given the widespread depletion of coral reef fisheries globally, we were really excited to find these areas that were fairing much better than we anticipated,” says lead author Josh Cinner from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

“To be clear, bright spots are not necessarily pristine reefs, but rather reefs that have more fish than they should, given the pressures they face.”

According to the authors, many bright spots had strong local involvement in how the reefs were managed, local ownership rights, and traditional management practices.

“This provides insights that could help us sustain the world’s coral reefs, which are important as source of food, jobs and income for millions of people worldwide,” says UBC researcher Rashid Sumaila, co-author of the Nature paper, scientific director of the UBC-based OceanCanada Partnership and a member of the UBC Institute for the Fisheries and Oceans.

“Healthy coral reefs also help to mitigate against climate change effects such as the intensification of hurricanes.”

The scientists also identified 35 ‘dark spots’ — reefs with fish stocks in worse shape than expected.

This type of bright spots analysis has been used in fields such as human health to improve the wellbeing of millions of people. It is the first time it has been rigorously developed for conservation.

The bright spots were typically found in the Pacific Ocean in places like the Solomon Islands, parts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati. Dark spots were more globally distributed and found in every major ocean basin.

The study was published in the journal Nature. Thirty nine scientists from 34 different universities and conservation groups conducted the research.

“Healthy coral reefs also help to mitigate against climate change effects such as the intensification of hurricanes.”

Chris Balma
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