A number of ‘bright spots’ have been discovered amongst the struggling coral reefs of the world, but what are they, and what do they mean for reef conservation?

In a global study, a team of scientists conducted over 6,000 reef surveys in 46 countries. The ‘bright spots’ they found are 15 coral reefs where marine life is faring far better than expected, and their discovery brings hope.

“Our bright spots approach has identified places we did not previously know were so successful, and the really interesting thing is that they are not necessarily untouched by man,” says co-author, Nick Graham of Lancaster University.

Coral reefs are declining every year due to the threat of climate change, increasing ocean acidification, and coastal erosion, with the addition of land use changes for human benefit and overfishing. Not only are they associated with 25% of all marine species globally, coral reefs provide essential ecosystem services to coastal communities, such as protection from storms and coastal erosion.

Coral Reef management is therefore a key concern to governments with and without coral reef communities. So far, most conservation efforts identify areas of nature that need protecting, but hardly any consider those where nature and people coexist. The new paper, published in Nature, is the first of its kind to incorporate socioeconomic factors into predicting areas of coral reef most under threat in order to better conservation efforts by governments and local people alike.

“To be clear, bright spots are not necessarily pristine reefs, but rather reefs that have more fish than they should, given the pressures they face,” said lead author Josh Cinner, of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

Coral reef bright spots

A child plays on the beach as the sun rises over a coral reef fringing New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Tane Sinclair-Taylor

To discover what characterised bright spots, the team interviewed local experts and found that bright spots were associated with high levels of local engagement in reef management, and socioeconomic factors such as marine tenure – the local ownership rights. Environmental conditions also play a part, with the bright spots linked to deep water refuges.

The team also investigated areas where success is underestimated – ‘dark spots’ – where governance or efforts have failed. Most bright spots were usually found in the Pacific Ocean in places like the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, whereas dark spots were more globally distributed and found in every major ocean basin.

“We believe that the bright spots offer hope and some solutions that can be applied more broadly across the world’s coral reefs,” said Cinner. “Specifically, investments that foster local involvement and provide people with ownership rights can allow people to develop creative solutions that help defy expectations of reef fisheries depletion.”

This study highlights that marine reserves do help conserve the marine life within them, but only if compliance from nearby human communities is high. If we wish to protect more of our oceans reefs, we need to incorporate areas with human settlement and figure out how we can coexist with nature without compromising socioeconomic factors.

The team suggests that local involvement is key to this solution, emphasising the importance of reducing human and conservation conflicts,  ensuring that, if conservation benefits local people, it is easily achieved.

 

Reference

Cinner, J, Huchery, C, MacNeil, A, et al. (2016) Bright spots amongst the world’s coral reefs.  Nature,  doi: 10.1038/nature18607

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