'Reefs at Risk: Global Threats Require Global Action'
(Opening Keynote Address)

As delivered on Feb. 23 by Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator as part of a Press Launch of the World Resources Institute "Reefs at Risk Revisited" at the National Press Club, Washington, DC

February 23, 2011

Thank you, Jonathan for that introduction, and for all that WRI has done to draw attention to the importance of coral reefs and to quantify their state.  Your leadership is much appreciated and greatly respected.

On behalf of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and the 12,800 employees of NOAA, it is my pleasure to stand with the World Resources Institute and partners to launch “Reefs at Risk Revisited.” With this historic report, WRI continues its trend of using expert knowledge to inform, inspire, empower action, and implement transformative solutions that address global environmental challenges. 

Now – full disclosure:  I feel compelled to be completely honest with you.  Any mention of coral reefs immediately transports me to an underwater haven called Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia where I had the privilege of diving just over a year ago.  The reefs there epitomize what is at stake with the onslaught of threats to reefs world-wide.  Raja Ampat harbors 1320 species of reef fish, and as much as 75% of the diversity of the world’s corals.  Those numbers, though impressive, do little to capture the beauty, mystery, and majesty of the seascapes.  Crocodile fish, pygmy seahorses, batfish, crinoids, anemone fish, nudibranchs, anemones and so, so, so much more -- all dependent upon the underlying structure and habitat provided by healthy coral reefs.  An Eden beneath the waves, those reefs are a source of knowledge, a treasure trove of life’s mysteries, the grocery and pharmacy of local people, their protection against tsunamis and tropical storms, and a rich source of resilience against environmental change.    

Floating blissfully in this blue Mecca, I wished that its beauty and bounty were more broadly recognized.  Those reefs are essential to the health, food security and economic well-being of Indonesians.  Approximately 60% of Indonesians depend on seafood for their sole or primary source of protein.  Fisheries there are also critical for trade and economic opportunity, including a burgeoning tourist industry.

Unfortunately, the beautiful, diverse coral reef ecosystems I saw in Indonesia are threatened, as are reefs globally. As noted in the new WRI report, approximately 75% of world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by a combination of local and global pressures. 

This is a critical time for ocean ecosystems in general, but especially for coral reefs.  Mounting pressures on land, along the coast and in the water converge in a perfect storm of threats to reefs.  Since the last ‘Reefs at Risk’ report a decade ago, threats have gone from worrisome to dire. Reef ecosystems are changing rapidly and radically, with profound consequences for humanity. 

But what’s really at stake?

Preserving coral reefs is about protecting coastal communities:

Preserving coral reefs is about preserving cultures:

Preserving coral reefs is about food security:

Preserving coral reefs is about ensuring thriving economies:

But most of all, preserving coral reefs is about our collective commitment to one another, to the rest of life on the planet and to our future.

A deadly combination of local and global threats are putting these important ecosystems and their services at risk.

WRI’s  “Reefs at Risk Revisited” presents not only a sobering status report of worsening drivers of previously identified threats, but a new focus on recently identified threats from climate change and ocean acidification.

The potential impacts from climate change were demonstrated graphically by the extensive coral bleaching in the Caribbean basin in 2005 and in Southeast Asia and the Coral Triangle region in 2010.  In addition, ocean acidification – the change in ocean chemistry due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere – had barely made it into the scientific literature 10-years ago, but is now understood to inflict potentially irreversible damage to our ocean ecosystems.

Extreme bleaching events kill corals outright, while less extreme events can weaken corals, affecting their reproductive potential, reducing growth and calcification, and leaving them vulnerable to disease.  Coral bleaching has negative impacts not only on coral reef ecosystems, but also on the human communities that depend on coral reefs for food and income.

If the current trends persist, the projections in this report tell us that 20 years from now, roughly half of reefs globally will experience thermal stress sufficient to induce severe bleaching in most years. Within the next 50 years, this percentage is expected to grow to more than 95 percent.  This is a sobering thought. 

Although many reefs can recover from infrequent and mild bleaching, this degree of both acute and chronic stress presents a significant risk of irreversible damage to reefs and subsequently to the people who rely upon them.

In addition to thermal stress, corals face the added threat of ocean acidification.  Ocean acidification is a global-scale change in the basic chemistry of oceans that is currently underway as a direct result of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ocean. As more CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, sea water becomes more acidic.  The change in chemistry means it is more difficult for corals to build their skeletons.

The moniker “osteoporosis of the sea,” gives you a hint of some of the impacts of ocean acidification.  Reduced calcification rates limit a reef’s ability to grow, stay healthy and withstand stress. 

The analysis in “Reefs at Risk Revisited” found that by 2030, fewer than half the world’s reefs are projected to be in areas where the level of calcium carbonate is ideal for coral growth, suggesting that coral growth rates could be dramatically reduced due to ocean acidification. By 2050, only about 15 percent of reefs will be in areas where calcium carbonate levels are adequate for coral growth.

The state of reefs today and this report should raise concerns for everyone.  Reef ecosystems are globally important; their continued existence is a moral imperative for the global community; healthy reefs are also the life-line for local communities. 

This report and new scientific efforts provide opportunities for the world to change the current trajectory of loss of reefs and the services they provide.  Science is driving new innovative solutions; communities and stakeholders are becoming engaged; and creativity is enhancing progress.

Beacons of hope emerge from multiple places around the world.  Let me highlight a few of these. 

One such beacon comes from Indonesia. In remote villages of the Bird’s Head Seascape – an expanse of north-eastern Indonesia considered the epicenter of biodiversity within the Coral Triangle – village leaders and resource managers have formed a soccer league specifically as a means to foster cooperation and exchange knowledge about their approaches to coral reef conservation. They travel by every means possible – mules, small water craft, mopeds and rickshaws – to soccer games, ultimately building a larger, stronger, more resilient community of practitioners to protect these valuable resources and the communities dependent upon them.

This ingenuity and commitment provide hope for reefs.

Another creative effort is underway in the Caribbean.

Through an effort of The Nature Conservancy, fishers from Pedro Bank, Jamaica -- the only remaining place in Jamaica where you can still make a living by fishing – were brought together with fishers from Belize.   This “Fishers Exchange” exposed the shock and dismay of the Belizeans as they witness the scope of the devastation of Pedro Bank in Jamaica; and the amazement of the Jamaicans as they snorkel among teeming fish in Belize’s marine protected areas.  Like the best conservation stories, this is more about hope than it is about loss. In the waters of Belize, the Pedro Bank fishers saw the value of marine protected areas and well-managed fisheries. They saw just how rich their own waters used to be and can be again. With work and commitment, they still have an opportunity to preserve and recover their natural heritage and protect the reefs and the fisheries that are the foundation of their way of life.

Another innovative tool that gives me hope is the use of satellite-based observations to monitor environmental conditions influencing coral reef health at local, regional, and global scales.

For example, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch has customized data such as sea surface temperature from our polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites into user-friendly products that highlight areas currently at risk for coral bleaching and other environmental threats.  We are able to alert resource managers and researchers to environmental events significant to coral reef health, allowing managers to enhance monitoring and implement additional protective measures in a timely fashion.

Yet another reason for hope is the new National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts, and Great Lakes here in the United States. 

Our Nation’s first ever National Ocean Policy states unequivocally that healthy oceans matter. The Policy clearly articulates the interconnected nature of humans and oceans – that our communities, economies, and livelihoods depend on healthy ecosystems.

I am pleased that at the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting tomorrow its members will take action to integrate Task Force priorities within the framework of the National Ocean Policy.  The Task Force will provide the necessary voice and leadership to ensure that coral reef ecosystem conservation is part of the implementation of the National Ocean Policy. I think this is a very important step, and as a member of the National Ocean Council, I wholeheartedly support this action.

But: make no mistake:  the task before us remains a daunting one.  It will take a herculean effort to reverse the current trajectory and leave healthy ocean ecosystems to our children and our grandchildren. 

Some might say that the odds of reversing trends to leave such a legacy are too great.  But I beg to differ.  I am encouraged by numerous signs: 

The global community is now faced with a decision.  We have the chance to reverse the decline of coral reefs and bring them back to health.  The window of opportunity for this option is finite.  This report should serve as the wake-up call: now is the time to act.

Healthy oceans should be everyone’s business.  Greater awareness and engagement are needed to protect and restore the global treasures that are coral reefs.  How the world rises to this challenge is a reflection of our commitment to one another and to the natural world that gives us sustenance, wisdom and a reflection of our souls. 

Thank You.