Feature

The coral reef link to human wellbeing

G Magazine

Climate change

coral reef

Credit: iStockphoto

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The 115, largely postcard perfect, islands of the Seychelles are found strung across a patch of the Indian Ocean 1,500 km off the coast of East Africa.

Around 90% of the population and practically all economic activity on the islands is located on narrow coastal strips, most around two metres above sea level and less than two kilometres wide.

The international airport, crucial to tourism - which accounts for 20% of GDP and one third of jobs - is built on land reclaimed from the sea, and no more than two to three metres above sea level. The same is true for the fishing port, the commercial port, a major power station, waste processing plants, fuel storage depots and major industrial zones.

It's not a widely known fact, but all of this is protected from storm surges and wave action by a network of coral reefs.

Coral reefs are not only spectacular biological baubles and playgrounds for divers; in many parts of the world, including Australia and most small tropical islands, they provide essential services that communities are totally dependent upon.

In Australia the Great Barrier Reef is responsible for protecting over 2,000 km of coastline from the ravages of the open sea, says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg a veteran marine biologist and director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. Here the reef encourages mangroves, seagrass and fisheries along the coast and protects against erosion, he says.

More than just a pretty face

On top of this, the reef contributes billions of dollars to the Australian economy each year. And world-wide, more than 500 million people rely on reefs for food and revenue. "Coral reefs are really important to this planet, they are not only beautiful and magical, but they support an enormous number of people," Hoegh-Guldberg says.

"Coral reef ecosystems are valuable to human communities because of the ecosystem services that they provide," agrees Ilsa Kuffner, a biologist at the US Geological Survey in St Petersburg, Florida. "These include shoreline protection, production of carbonate sand for beaches, habitat for economically important fisheries, and recreation for tourism industries."

Ronny Jumeau is the ambassador of the Republic of the Seychelles to the United Nations. He is the former environment minister of the Seychelles, and is the nation's leading diplomat on issues concerning climate change. "You cannot de-link the fate of coral reefs to the existence of small islands and low-lying areas which are protected by them," he says. "We hear a lot about sea level rise being a threat to small islands. The death of reefs poses the same threat."

Under global warming predictions for the next half century, many small islands such as those of the Seychelles and Maldives face a serious threat from rising sea levels. This is occurring not only because of melting glaciers and ice caps, but because the sea is expanding as it warms. In 2007 the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned an increase in sea level of just 18 to 59 centimetres is likely by 2100. This could be enough to wipe the Maldives off the map.

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