Measures to mitigate climate change are needed regardless of coral, but even if the world’s great powers were to put their shoulder to the problem, global warming would not be brought to a swift halt. Coral systems must adapt if they are to survive, and governments in countries with reefs can help them do so.
Corals need protection from local sources of harm. Their ecosystems suffer from coastal run-off, whether sewage or waste from farms, as well as the sediment dumped from beach-front building sites. Plastic and other debris block sunlight and spread hostile bacteria. Chunks of reef are blown up by blast fishing; algae grow too much whenever fishing is too intensive. Governments need to impose tighter rules on these industries, such as tougher local building codes, and to put more effort into enforcing rules against overfishing.
Setting up marine protected areas could help reefs. Locals who fear for their livelihoods could be given work as rangers with the job of looking after the reserves. Levies on visitors to marine parks, similar to those imposed in parts of the Caribbean, could help pay for such schemes. So too could a special tax on coastal property developers.
Many reefs that have been damaged could benefit from restoration. Coral’s biodiversity offers hope, because the same coral will grow differently under different conditions. Corals of the western Pacific near Indonesia, for example, can withstand higher temperatures than the same species in the eastern Pacific near Hawaii. Identifying the hardiest types and encouraging them to grow in new spots is a way forward, though an expensive one. A massive project of this sort is under way in Saudi Arabia as part of a tourism drive. Scientists working alongside the Red Sea Development Company want to discover why the area’s species seem to thrive in its particularly warm waters.
More drastic intervention to head off the larger threats corals face should also attract more research. Shading reefs using a polymer film as a sunscreen to cool them is under discussion for parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Other schemes to help corals involve genetic engineering, selective breeding and brightening the clouds in the sky above an area of the reef by spraying specks of salt into the lowest ones, so that they deflect more of the sun’s energy. These measures may sound extreme, but people need to get used to thinking big. Dealing with the problems caused by climate change will call for some radical ideas.