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Wildlife Trade Specialists

Published 13th May 2009

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Coral climate crunch compounds over-harvesting

Manado, Indonesia, 13th May 2009—Southeast Asia’s coastal environments will lose much of their ability to feed people while the livelihoods of 100 million people will be lost if the world fails to take effective action on climate change and other environmental impacts, warned TRAFFIC’s programme partner, WWF, at the World Oceans Conference today. 


The impact of climate change on coral reefs will only compund the problems caused by over-harvesting of species like the Humphead Wrasse © Cindy Cheng / WWF-Hong Kong   

But effective global action on climate change and regional attention to problems of over-fishing and pollution would prevent catastrophe, said a WWF-commissioned study. 

The Coral Triangle and climate change: Ecosystems, people and societies at risk considers over 300 published scientific studies and the work of over 20 experts in fields such as biology, economics and fisheries science.

It presents two different possible futures this century for the world’s richest marine environment—the coasts, reefs and seas of the six countries of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.

The Coral Triangle, just one per cent of the earth’s surface, includes 30 per cent of the world’s coral reefs, 76 per cent of its reef building coral species and more than 35 per cent of its coral reef fish species, such as Humphead Wrasse, as well as vital spawning grounds for other economically important fish such as tuna. It sustains the lives of more than 100 million people.

“In one world scenario, we continue along our current climate trajectory and do little to protect coastal environments from the onslaught of local threats,” says Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland, who led the study. 

“In this world, people see the biological treasures of the Coral Triangle destroyed over the course of the century by rapid increases in ocean temperature, acidity and sea level, while the resilience of coastal environments also deteriorates under faltering coastal management. Poverty increases, food security plummets, economies suffer and coastal people migrate increasingly to urban areas.” 

“Tens of millions of people are forced to move from rural and coastal settings due to loss of homes, food resources and income, putting pressure on regional cities and surrounding developed nations such as Australian and New Zealand.”

However the report also shows there is an opportunity to avoid a worst-case scenario in the region and instead build a resilient and robust Coral Triangle in which economic growth, food security and natural environments are maintained if significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are backed up by international investment in strengthening the region’s natural environments.

“This leads to climate change in the Coral Triangle which is challenging but manageable and which responds well to regional action to reduce local environmental stresses from overfishing, pollution, and declining coastal water quality and health,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“Many species within the Coral Triangle are already suffering the damaging impacts of over-exploitation, said TRAFFIC Southeast Asia Senior Programme Officer Julia Ng

“A collaborative study between TRAFFIC, WWF-Malaysia and the Sabah Fisheries Department on species such as the Humphead Wrasse, show that it will be quite impossible for wild populations to survive such mass harvesting much longer.

“The impacts of climate change will only compound the problem. A lack of action could turn a difficult situation into a disaster for many marine species and the people who depend on them,” said Ng.

Even under the best case scenario however, communities will face loss of coral, sea level rises, increased storm activity, severe droughts and reduced food availability from coastal fisheries. A key difference, however, is that communities remain reasonably intact and more resilient in the face of these hardships. 

“Effective management of coastal resources through a range of options including locally-managed regional networks of marine protected areas, protection of mangrove and seagrass beds and effective management of fisheries results in a slower decline in these resources,” the summary report said.

“The relationship between people and the sea in the Coral Triangle has come under extreme threat from rapid climate change and escalating local and regional environmental pressures,” said WWF International Director General James Leape.

“These pressures are increasing at such an alarming rate that urgent regional and international action must now be taken to avoid an ecological and human catastrophe.

“World leaders must support Coral Triangle countries in their efforts to protect their most vulnerable communities from rising sea levels and loss of food and livelihoods by helping them to strengthen management of their marine resources and by forging a strong agreement on greenhouse gas reductions at the UN Climate Conference at Copenhagen in December this year.”