Climate change, corals and concerned scientists

In June 2016 two Oceanographic Research Institute scientists – Dr David Pearton and Dr Sean Porter – attended the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) held at the Waikiki Convention Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. 

This is the pre-eminent coral reef conference and is only held once every four years. This year’s theme, “Bridging Science to Policy”, not only showcased the latest in coral reef research, but endeavoured to bridge the gap between the science of coral reefs and those policymakers, stakeholders and communities directly involved with managing, conserving and utilising these precious ecosystems.

Bleached plate corals and sea fans on Molasses Reef, Key Largo. (Image: mattk1979)

To this end more than 3 000 scientists, managers and policymakers attended six days of seminars, plenaries and workshops highlighting the most recent research, as well as ways of effectively managing and monitoring coral reef ecosystems. This year’s conference was particularly timely and poignant as it came while the world was undergoing the planet's 3rd Global Coral Bleaching Event. This is an unprecedented disaster in which coral reefs all across the planet, from the Caribbean to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, have been subjected to extremely warm temperatures which have caused corals to bleach and, in many cases, die. This was a sombre backdrop to the conference and highlighted the extreme threats to coral reefs on a global scale.

Despite the bleak news presented by many scientists from around the globe, the meeting ended on a hopeful note. Scientists have done a considerable amount of work to identify the principal threats to coral reefs and have made much progress in discovering the most effective ways to mitigate these risks and help protect reefs from damage and degradation, or to ensure that they are able to recover or be restored if damage occurs. Consequently, we are in a position to offer solutions to policymakers and managers that will hopefully allow more effective management and protection of these critical ecosystems.

The ORI scientists were part of a very small African contingent, but were nevertheless able to showcase the important work being carried out in South Africa. Dr Pearton presented experiments designed to assess the potential effects of climate change on South African reefs, as well as an ecological study on the role of soft corals on our reefs. 

Dr Porter presented the results of ORI’s 20-year-old, long-term monitoring of corals at Sodwana Bay and the trends that have been observed. All these talks were well received and the delegates were impressed with the depth and quality of scientific research being conducted by ORI. 

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