-The international team of scientists, including researchers with conservation groups, government agencies, and universities, identified three main strategies that can be quickly enacted to save reefs from climate change and human impacts.
To identify where and how to save reefs, researchers measured coral abundance on more than 2,500 reefs along the coasts of 44 countries in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Their analysis proved a majority of reefs host functioning coral communities with a diverse and architecturally complex cover of species.
After the El Niño event that lasted from 2014 to 2017, which triggered the largest coral bleaching event in modern history, researchers found 450 reefs in 22 countries in the Indo-Pacific survived. Their resilience was made possible by climate "cool spots."
"The good news is that functioning coral reefs still exist, and our study shows that it is not too late to save them," lead study author Emily Darling, lead scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society's global coral reef monitoring program, said in a news release. "Safeguarding coral reefs into the future means protecting the world's last functioning reefs and recovering reefs impacted by climate change. But realistically -- on severely degraded reefs -- coastal societies will need to find new livelihoods for the future."
In the new paper, published this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, Darling and her colleagues suggest the first strategy for saving coral reefs should be to prioritize protection efforts for coral communities found in climate cool spots.
In addition to protecting the most resilient reefs, study authors suggest governments and conservation groups work to promote the recovery of reefs that were recently functioning but were severely degraded by the most recent El Niño event -- the second strategy.
For the third strategy, study authors suggest coastal communities need to phase out their reliance of degraded reefs.
"Saving reefs will require combining local and global efforts, such as reducing local dependence on reef fish to maintain a reef's important functions while also reducing carbon emissions to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius," said study co-author Tim McClanahan, senior conservation woologist with WCS.
According to scientists, all of their recommendations should be coupled with global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and halt climate change.
"More than ever, we must consider how to manage local threats to coral reefs while keeping an eye to future climate impacts," said co-author Gabby Ahmadia, director of marine conservation science at World Wildlife Fund. "This study will help policymakers and conservationists make informed management decisions for coral reefs and the communities that rely on them."