Editor’s note: Sue Wells is a private consultant. She co-authored the landmark IUCN report A Global Representative System of Marine Protected Areas, and is lead editor of Reef Encounter, the newsletter of the International Society for Reef Studies.

By Sue Wells

The International Year of the Reef (IYOR) 2008 has been designated by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) and its members to promote conservation action and strengthen long-term constituencies for coral reef conservation. Building on the lessons learned from IYOR 1997, it provides an opportunity to highlight the extreme urgency of tackling the problems facing the world’s declining coral reefs – now clearly one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. Despite the many initiatives underway to protect them, the health of many reefs continues to deteriorate.

IYOR 2008 provides an opportunity to see how we can use MPAs more effectively to protect reefs. MPAs have long been a central tool for reef conservation – both for the maintenance of healthy reefs and for providing the conditions for recovery of those that are damaged. Some of the earliest MPAs were set up to protect reefs, such as the “Sea Gardens” off Nassau initially protected in the Bahamas in the 1890s, and the many tabu areas in the Pacific, now centuries old. The evidence for the role of no-take MPAs in maintaining and increasing populations of reef fish and other species within their boundaries is now undisputed.

About 1100 protected areas have coral reefs (source: World Database on Protected Areas, September 2006), or about 25% of the world’s MPAs, and an estimated 15-22% of the area of the world’s reef lies within MPAs. This means that, unlike other marine and many terrestrial ecosystems, the target of 10% set by the Convention on Biological Diversity has globally been reached. But for ecosystems such as reefs, where the total area is small and the decline precipitous, a much greater level of protection is needed. Furthermore, it seems that MPAs provide no guarantee that the reefs within them will be in good health: in many cases reefs have deteriorated as much inside MPAs as outside. And ironically, the increase in number of MPAs over the last two decades actually correlates with the rate of decline in healthy coral.

Can we reverse this trend during IYOR 2008? There are three key issues that perhaps need particular attention:

1. Increasing the area of protected reefs within MPA networks

Many countries are now starting to design networks of MPAs to improve representation of all habitat types, often with targets for reef protection set higher than 10%. For example, in their national protected area system plans, Belize has a target of 30% of its coral reefs to be protected and Cuba has a target of 25%. Other countries could follow these leads.

2. Ensuring that MPA networks address reef resilience and connectivity

Guidelines published by The Nature Conservancy (www.reefresilience.org) describe how reefs that are more resistant and resilient (i.e. that are able to withstand, and recover from, stresses such as bleaching) can be identified and then incorporated into MPA networks. The general principles that have been developed are being tested in the design of new MPA networks in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Belize, but there is scope for using them more widely.

In relation to connectivity, research is showing that the larvae of many species disperse over much shorter distances than previously thought, often staying on their reefs of origin or recruiting to adjacent reefs. For example, in the Bahamas, distinct genetic differences have been found between populations of Acropora palmata on reefs as close as 2-20 km, and all populations more than 500 km apart are distinct. This information will be used by the Bahamas as it develops its planned network of no-take marine reserves. Further work of this nature is needed.

3. Improving management of coral reef MPAs

It is not possible to list all the interventions needed to improve MPA management, but the following could be given particular attention during IYOR 2008:

  • More and larger reef no-take areas: only about 1.4% of reefs lie within no-take areas, and possibly less than 0.1% of reefs are within MPAs that fully protect diversity;
  • Greater compliance with regulations designed to protect reefs and their inhabitants, so that poaching, destructive fishing methods, anchoring, ship groundings and other such activities are eliminated;
  • Improvements in MPA infrastructure and equipment, provision of adequate resources, and capacity building of MPA personnel at all levels;
  • Introduction of regular evaluations of management effectiveness, with feedback to improve performance.

Of course, MPAs alone will not ensure the survival of the world’s reefs, given their vulnerability to bleaching, ocean acidification, nutrient enrichment, land-based pollution and run-off, and other factors emanating from well beyond the boundaries. Many other activities and interventions are needed, as indicated on the IYOR 2008 website. There is little direct funding for IYOR 2008 and, as with IYOR 1997, the approach will be to inspire organizations and individuals to use the initiative as an umbrella for existing and new events/activities. Everyone is encouraged to participate. An online calendar allows IYOR participants to post their activities.

For additional news and information about IYOR, visit www.iyor.org or e-mail the IYOR International Coordinator at info@iyor.org.

For more information

Sue Wells, 95 Burnside, Cambridge CB1 3PA, United Kingdom. Tel: +44 1223 711 017; E-mail: suewells100@tiscali.co.uk

BOX: What MPA managers can do as part of IYOR 2008

Several key interventions that will help MPAs to protect reefs are given in the article above. There are also many individual activities that could be undertaken during IYOR 2008 and that would ensure that individual MPAs make their contribution:

  1. Organize an exhibition or educational display about coral reefs in the MPA visitor or information center
  2. Organize talks, guided visits, reef clean-ups, competitions, or other events to celebrate IYOR 2008
  3. Hold a fundraising event for a specific reef conservation action
  4. Launch an “Adopt-a-Reef” campaign or similar initiative to raise funds and increase awareness of reefs
  5. For MPAs outside the tropics, consider “twinning” with a coral reef MPA, and helping to raise funds for its management
  6. Invite the local media and key reef stakeholders and users (tourist operators, hoteliers, etc.) to the MPA for an “IYOR 2008 Day” to identify issues and solutions
  7. Advertise IYOR 2008 within the MPA, in promotional materials and on websites

– By Sue Wells

BOX: Reflections on the previous International Year of the Reef – 1997

The year 2008 is not the first International Year of the Reef; 1997 was similarly designated. An article in the September 2007 edition of Reef Encounter, the newsletter of the International Society for Reef Studies, provides a record of what happened in IYOR eleven years ago. The article “Reflections on progress since IYOR 1997” is on pp. 13-14 of the issue, available at www.iyor.org/news/pdf/Reef_Encounter_35_September_2007.pdf.