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The race to save devastated coral reefs in Southeast Asia

Our challenges

The coral reef ecosystem, besides being an amazing underwater sight to contemplate, is also a bastion of marine biodiversity and life. While coral reefs only occupy less than 0,1% of the total ocean surface area, they are home to more than 9 million species or at least 25% of all marine creatures. A square kilometer (0.4 square mile) of healthy coral reef on average yields 15 tons of fish and seafood products annually.

Economic growth and an increasing human population of approximately over 300 million people are placing unsustainable threats on the marine and coral reef ecosystems of Southeast Asia. Marine ecosystems are affected by pollution, overfishing, coastal modification and development, during which many habitats are degraded, fragmented or simply destroyed. Around a third of reef-building coral species are threatened with extinction. Overfishing in Southeast Asia has provided for a major disturbance in the healthy ecological balance of coral reefs, thus ensuring the decline of coastal reefs. For example, in several ESI coral reef sites under monitoring at the Coral Triangle (Southeast Asia), mass mortality of coral reefs was due to outbreaks of a species of starfish (Acanthaster planci). The outbreak of Acanthaster planci is almost certainly due to the overfishing of larger predatory sea life which disrupted the food chain and has led to an abundance of starfish which feeds on the coral, destroying it.

Photo on the left: Starfish (Acanthaster planci) feeding on coral. Photo on the right: Healthy coral reef site under ESI conservation effort in the Philippines. Photographs copyrights 2017 ESI/Pierre Fidenci.

The two main challenges which coral reefs face in Southeast Asia, overfishing and coastal pollution/development, are spurred by an evolving world that demands large-scale profits and falls short in properly considering the consequences of its actions. Coastal overfishing and the loss of inshore marine biodiversity are two crucial challenges that Endangered Species International (ESI) addresses in order to successfully protect and restore coral reefs in Southeast Asia.

Working with communities for local action

ESI careful deliberates with local communities about trade-offs and how to make strong marine conservation efforts. Each coastal community has different social and conservation contexts, different levels of dependence on marine resources, therefore, our solutions to protect coral reefs defer at each site where we work. ESI takes in account science, environmental awareness, and deliberation with local communities about trade-offs that will ultimately help both the community and the marine environment.

Our coral reef conservation efforts translate in the field with the followings:

  • Law enforcement and local initiatives remain important channels for our solutions;

  • We focus on protecting coral reefs near urban areas and where coastal communities are present. In general, there is a deficit of protection on coral reef areas near people, with disproportional protection on reefs far from people;

  • Rather than focusing solely on preserving healthy reefs, our approach includes the potential for biodiversity recovery and renewal of ecosystem services. Therefore, we work in expanding the range of marine protected areas to include degraded reefs.

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