Florida Tech Research Suggests Multinational Ocean Sanctuaries to Help Corals Survive Climate Change

Large Sanctuaries Can Preserve Genetic Diversity

With the growing severity of marine heatwaves, mass coral bleaching and mortality have become widespread. (Florida Tech image)

BREVARD COUNTY • MELBOURNE, FLORIDA – With the growing severity of marine heatwaves, mass coral bleaching and mortality have become widespread.

A new study led by researchers at Florida Tech recommends multinational networks of protected reefs as the best chance corals have to persist through climate change.

The research was led by Rob van Woesik, professor and director of the Institute for Global Ecology, and post-doctoral fellow Tom Shlesinger, both from Florida Tech, and 26 colleagues from around the world. It was published recently in Global Change Biology.

One of the greatest challenges for science is to combine findings across multiple disciplines and make useful recommendations for conservation. In their paper, van Woesik and colleagues summarize recent coral-bleaching discoveries, evaluate which data and processes can improve predictive models, and provide information to guide conservation efforts.

“While traditional marine reserves were commonly designed to prevent over-harvesting, the study recommends the establishment of networks of huge ‘mesoscale’ multinational sanctuaries to preserve the genetic diversity necessary to fuel evolutionary adaptation,” van Woesik said.

“To ‘climate-proof’ reefs, we need to conserve both coral reef habitats and genetic diversity.”

“There are several examples of such large multi-national networks of protected areas on land, and we need to make similar efforts in the ocean,” Florida Tech’s Shlesinger said.

The paper reports that recent studies have identified several areas of potential climate-change refuges, including northwestern Indonesia, the central Philippines, Malaysia, French Polynesia, the northern Red Sea, Hawaii, Cuba and the Bahamas.

The study also suggests increasing in-country conservation efforts but also linking those efforts across national boundaries, Shlesinger noted.

“Focusing on critical biological processes and scaling those from the cellular level through the individual and population levels and up to the reef as a whole will be key to improve not only our current understanding but also our predictive capabilities,” van Woesik said.

He added, “Innovative, interdisciplinary solutions and novel molecular methods will help resolve responses to thermal stress and, therefore, can improve the identification of corals best suited for restoration efforts.”

The best way to support the resilience, adaptation, and recovery of coral reefs is of course to urgently reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, the authors suggest, while also working cooperatively to create both local and mesoscale coral-reef sanctuaries.

“Alongside the urgent global need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, all possible local and multinational actions should be made to conserve coral reefs—one of the most wondrous ecosystems on the planet—into the future,” the authors write.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation.

The article, “Coral-bleaching responses to climate change across biological scales,” is available at Global Change Biology.

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