Fergusson Island in Papua New Guinea
Some of the world’s most treasured natural resources are in jeopardy. But there’s reason to hope.
As a senior associate heading up efforts to protect coastal ecosystems at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C., Lauretta Burke spends many of her days in the office doing tasks one would expect of a researcher: sifting through data, puzzling over projection models and devising effective climate policies to preserve some of the world’s most treasured natural resources, especially coral reefs. But on occasion, time spent in the field drives home the relevance and importance of Burke’s work in a way even the most rigorously crafted quantitative model or research report cannot. For Burke, one of those moments came when diving during a global-reefs-at-risk workshop in the Philippines.
While underwater, Burke was startled to hear the unmistakable boom of an explosion. Far from being a fluke occurrence, however, the blast Burke heard was the all-too-common sound of local fishermen at work on one of the archipelago’s many coral reefs, part of what is known as the Coral Triangle of Southeast Asia. As Burke knows all too well now, dynamite and ammonium nitrate are just as much the tools of the fishing trade in some parts of the world as nets and lines. “There wasn’t fishing with explosives prior to World War II. That provided firsthand knowledge of a bomb being dropped on a reef and all these fish floating to the surface,” says Burke, who notes that these techniques are often used out of desperation because overfishing makes it so hard to land fish in less-destructive ways. “It becomes harder and harder to catch fish in traditional ways, and the effort becomes too much, so people resort to extreme measures.”
For Burke, the diving trip in the Philippines was a very up-close and personal experience of two of the most pervasive threats to the world’s coral reefs: overfishing and the destructive fishing practices it engenders. Sadly, though, these are just two of a long litany of threats, both local and global, to the health of coral reefs, which play a vital role in both the natural and economic health of many countries around the planet. Indeed, from ocean acidification and coral bleaching to rampant coastal development and erosion, coral reefs are in trouble. These are just some of the findings of a recent in-depth study, “Reefs at Risk Revisited,” which Burke co-authored and the World Resources Institute organized with the help of more than two dozen partner organizations.
Overall, the report, which was a follow-up to a 1998 study, found that 75 percent of reefs are currently threatened by global and local factors; the report also says that if left unchecked, these risks could threaten 90 percent of reefs by 2030 and nearly all reefs by 2050. “It’s like human health. If you have one problem, you can get over it. But if you have multiple problems, you can have a compromised immune system, and it’s harder to get things back on track,” Burke says. At the same time, the report provides the encouraging news that reefs are both resilient and can bounce back from damage when given the chance — and that there are plenty of places where this is happening.