By Emily Darling
This year Wildlife Conservation Day, December 4, arrives as we have just completed the once-a-decade World Parks Congress. Thousands of representatives from the global conservation community – from academics and NGO staff to policy makers and agency representatives – gathered in Sydney, Australia to discuss how we may better protect and preserve critical protected areas for nature across the globe, both on land and in the sea.
Protected areas are a hallmark strategy in marine conservation. Yet when they were first created, a growing lethal threat had not yet fully revealed itself. Warming, acidifying, and rising seas have devastated the world’s sensitive coral reefs, widely regarded as “ground zero” for climate change. El Niños and marine heat waves can bleach and destroy vast areas of healthy, biodiverse reefs even where they occur within “protected” parks.
If the global impacts of climate change do not stop at park boundaries, what can scientists do? One strategy is to identify and protect climate refuges – habitats with more stable environments where species can survive warming temperatures.
Kenya, for instance, has some of the oldest and most effective no-take marine reserves in the Western Indian Ocean with more diverse corals and healthy fish populations. In 1998, an El Niño heat wave provoked the warmest ocean temperatures ever recorded, killing nearly half of living corals in the Western Indian Ocean.
WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) scientists were surprised to find that coral communities protected within marine reserves were more harmed by bleaching than were adjacent unprotected and fished reefs.
Why? Twenty years of monitoring data collected by WCS revealed that unprotected, fished reefs had tougher corals capable of surviving the marine heat wave. Reserves, on the other hand, had provided a safe harbor for sensitive branching and plating corals that were highly sensitive to death by bleaching – leading many to believe that species diversity may be the Achilles heel of protected areas in the face of climate change.
If you travel about 900 miles south from Kenya to the Quirimbas archipelago of the northern Mozambique channel, there is a very different story to tell. Diving into the crystal waters off Vamizi Island, there are fields of healthy branching and plating corals – the species that disappeared and have not recovered after the marine heatwave in Kenya.
Vamizi’s reefs escaped the marine heat wave hidden from superheated waters in the shadow of Madagascar, where a series of oceanic gyres circulate cool water. Vamizi’s corals did not catastrophically bleach in 1998 and remain intact today – a rare example of biodiversity in the Western Indian Ocean. To help coral reefs adapt to climate change, we need to strategically identify and protect these and other such climate refuges.
More refuges might be found in other marine ecosystems that offer a natural advantage. Examples include Raja Ampat in Indonesia and the sheltered shallow lagoons of the Republic of Palau. These climate refuges that promote escape or adaptation may be our best hope for protected areas to buy time for species to adapt and to sustain healthy coral reefs into the future.
To facilitate the development of more climate-smart marine protected areas, we must not only identify climate refuges but we will need to catalyze local communities, national governments, and multilateral agencies to protect them.
On World Conservation Day, let’s commit ourselves to coordinating, funding, and implementing a global plan to link climate refuges within networks of protected areas for all ecosystems: coral reefs, tropical rainforests, Arctic tundra and beyond. It is my hope that by the next World Parks Congress, we will have made courageous commitments and measurable progress in giving corals and other sensitive species a fighting chance at survival as our world continues to heat up.
Emily Darling is a research associate with the Wildlife Conservation Society, where she coordinates a new global monitoring initiative for coral reef fisheries. She is also a David H. Smith Conservation Research Follow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she investigates climate change on coral reefs.