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Coral reefs capacity declines 50% globally since 1950s, hitting coastal communities hard

September 17, 2021

People all over the world rely on the functions of coral reefs as means for food, livelihoods and protection from storms. In a new study published in One Earth, SFU Resource and Environmental Management assistant professor Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor and a multi-institutional team of researchers found that coral reefs’ capacity to provide these essential services and benefits to people who’ve depended on them has declined by half since the 1950s.

The diverse ecosystems have been threatened by climate change, overfishing and habitat destruction, leading to significant loss. Coral reefs play an integral role in many Indigenous and coastal communities where the consumption of seafood is 15 times higher than non-Indigenous communities, and in developing regions where there are few alternative sources of nutrition.

The study highlights that Indigenous and coastal communities -- in this case in the tropics -- are being unfairly hurt by the world's actions. “This isn't just an environmental issue, it's also about human rights,” says Cisneros-Montemayor.

The study, led by Memorial University researcher Tyler Eddy and UBC’s William Cheung, found declines in healthy reef coverage and the quality of habitat, with diversity of species down by more than 60 per cent. Despite an increase in fishing efforts, the researchers found catches of fishes on coral reefs peaked in 2002 and have steadily declined since.

The findings highlight just how sensitive coral reef ecosystems are, concluding that continued degradation of the reef in years to come threatens the well-being and sustainable development of human communities on the coasts that depend on the reefs.

Cisneros-Montemayor says the study sheds light on the consequences of climate change and the subsequent biodiversity loss, as the degradation of coral reefs has impacts far beyond environtmental—with lasting effects that are social and economic.

“The vulnerability of ecosystems upon which human communities rely so heavily underscores the urgency for all people to tackle climate change,” he says.