Mark Collins
describes the global partnerships created to conserve and manage reefs, and recommends that they should now be supported by a concerted, well financed international programme

Coral reefs generate around $30 billion in goods and services to the world economy each year, and about a billion people depend on them for food, income and livelihood. And yet conserving them is proving to be a complicated task, and much remains to be done to find the necessary finance.

At first sight this may seem strange. Very recent research at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) using satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has shown that marine protected areas (MPAs) cover about 20 per cent of the 284,300 square kilometres of the reefs documented in the Centre’s World Atlas of Coral Reefs – and most of this is specially safeguarded under World Heritage designation.

The problem is the distribution of these areas around the world. Seventy per cent of all the coral reefs protected by national and international commitments are in just one MPA – and World Heritage site – the Australian Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The remainder are scattered over more than 670 MPAs, mostly covering less than 3 km2. These are too small and fragmented to ensure that the reef ecosystems, and their living communities of corals, fish and invertebrates, are adequately protected over the long term – particularly in light of the threats from climate change, bringing sea-level rise and warming of the water.

Surprisingly, coral reefs are only mentioned twice in the Plan of Implementation adopted at last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. On the face of it, this seems a serious underemphasis. The physical existence of several island atoll nations – not to speak of their political and sociological stability – is intrinsically linked to their ecosystems, which cover just 0.2 per cent of the world’s ocean floor, an area roughly the size of New Zealand. This, of course, is in addition to reefs’ well-documented roles in generating jobs, protecting against coastal erosion, creating safe harbours and safeguarding homes, food resources, economies and cultures around much of the world.

Global representation
Closer examination, however, shows that large parts of the Plan have implications for these vulnerable ecosystems, 60 per cent of which are at risk of permanent, irreversible damage – the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network tells us – from overfishing, habitat destruction, coral diseases, bleaching caused by climate change, and eutrophication caused by nutrient runoff from the land. The WSSD call for a globally representative system of MPAs to be established by 2012, for example, is clearly an important target for protecting the reefs and using them sustainably. When consolidating and improving the world’s coral reef parks we must design them flexibly and ensure that they are adapted to local needs. Some reef ecosystems need to be closely guarded as fish nurseries or monitoring and research areas, allowing minimum or no human interference to ensure their survival in pristine condition. Elsewhere MPAs should be multipurpose, with facilities for tourism and for sustainably using fish and other resources needed by local communities. Unfortunately some MPAs still allow the use of destructive practices for exploiting reefs and their associated ecosystems: this must be controlled.
When consolidating and improving the world’s coral reef parks we must ensure that they are adapted to local needs
These and other problems in designing and establishing MPAs are being addressed by one of UNEP-WCMC’s closest partners, the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). At the national level, the WCPA’s Marine Programme is sharing knowledge directly with practitioners and providing them with tools and information on MPA management. Regionally, it is strengthening its networks and building better communications. And globally, it is influencing programmes such as World Heritage to heighten recognition of the importance of MPAs for both conservation and sustainable use by the communities that depend on them. Like World Heritage, coastal and marine issues are a cross-cutting theme at the Vth World Parks Congress, highlighting their importance across all aspects of protected areas use and management.

Exchange of ideas
Other practical action has also been taken. The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) – established in 1993 as a partnership of governments, United Nations organizations, multilateral environmental agreements, agencies and interested individuals – aims to establish strategies for reversing the degradation of coral reefs and related ecosystems. It provides a forum where all stakeholders in reef management, capacity-building, research and environmental monitoring can share their ideas and experiences.

The International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN) was established in 1999 to develop a portfolio of practical projects and in-country campaigns within the ICRI framework, based on direct action in managing reefs, environmental assessment and raising awareness. The ICRAN partnership was launched at WSSD and includes UNEP, several international non-governmental organizations and the Regional Sea Conventions that cover coral reefs. The first phase was supported by a generous grant from the United Nations Foundation and has already provided excellent results, but further funds must be found to build on these promising beginnings.

Some lessons can already be learned. ICRI’s stakeholder networks and ICRAN’s early projects are succeeding because a wide range of organizations are working together towards common objectives and goals. But such collaboration must have greater financial backing and international support if real inroads are to be made. We have to share responsibilities, creating a flexible, diverse and long-lasting framework for action in which the capacities and resources of every stakeholder are brought to bear. The sheer diversity of environmental and socio-economic factors surrounding the sustainable development of coral reefs calls for a diversified but concerted financial, on-the-ground effort at many levels.

We are in the process of establishing a centre of excellence for coral reefs at UNEP-WCMC, with elements from our Marine and Coastal Programme for Assessment and Early Warning, the ICRAN Coordination Unit, and the UNEP Coral Reef Unit. Soon we will be joined by the ICRI Secretariat, which is being hosted by the United Kingdom and the Seychelles for the next two years. Each of these components has a particular role in protecting and managing coral reefs – but their combined impact on scientific, environmental and policy issues will be much greater than the sum of their individual work. Similar centres and approaches will be needed further to facilitate action on the socio-economic issues related to coral reefs and on putting the WSSD Plan of Implementation into practice.

Need for action
The information base is now fairly strong – we know where the reefs are, which are protected and to what degree. We also have a good idea of the importance of reefs to local coastal communities, to island nations, tropical regions, and to the world as a whole. Collaborative partnerships have been formed to share knowledge, experience and human resources. Project priorities are in place and ready to be rolled out.

It is now time for concerned governments, the Global Environment Facility, international foundations, philanthropists and others to recognize what has been achieved and come on board. There is no time to lose in giving coral reefs a high priority and to provide the financial resources needed to make a difference

Mark Collins is Director of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

PHOTOGRAPH: Edmund P. Green

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Biological backbone | Benefits beyond boundaries | Common inheritance | Beauty or beast? | Wonders of the world | Protecting heritage | People | Parks and participation | At a glance: Protected Areas | Profile: Harrison Ford | Scorecard, catalyst, watershed | Coral Reef Fund | Coral jewels | Reef knots | Brief window for biodiversity | Books & products | Conservation amid conflict | News | Green, red or black? | Keeping faith with nature | Make parks not war

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on WSSD, 2002
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996
Mark Collins: Globalizing solutions (Biological Diversity) 2000
Mark Collins: On top of the issue (Mountains and Ecotourism) 2002

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: