Can We Save Coral Reefs?

By Stephanie Wear, The Nature Conservancy

The news about coral reefs seems dire lately—overfishing, pollution and climate change have some scientists picturing a world without coral reefs. It’s true, the threats to reefs today are severe and growing. Caribbean reefs are a shadow of what they were a few decades ago, and many other reefs globally are changing.

But there are also thriving reefs around the world in spite of all the things people have done to them—from Curaçao to Raja Ampat to Palau. Their ability to persist in the face of global climate change is remarkable. Marine science is discovering that reefs are incredibly resilient—and that this resilience can be boosted with proper management techniques.

Here’s an example: In 1998, when the world experienced the largest ever coral bleaching event, and massive extents of corals died, some observers thought that was it for coral reefs. Yet, little by little, corals came back. What scientists and conservationists alike have been doing since is trying to understand why and how—and we are making significant strides that we can build on in our protection work.

There certainly will be winners and losers among reef ecosystems, and reefs will be different in the future than they were a few decades ago or than they are even today. And there is no question that if we don’t get a handle on CO2 emissions (increasing CO2 makes the ocean more acidic—a problem for reefs and many marine organisms), we will certainly see a loss in reefs and the many benefits they provide as sources of food, jobs, medicines and as buffers from storm waves.

The Nature Conservancy has been working to protect coral reefs for decades, in countries all over the world. We work locally, with the people who directly manage and benefit from reefs. But we’re also expanding our perspective to look at the global drivers of threats to coral reefs, drivers such as illegal fishing, development and industry.This year we will be engaging with the corporate and finance sectors—new stakeholders that have never been a part of the coral reef conversation—to help us identify game-changing approaches to make sure coral reefs are still around once we get this CO2 mess figured out.

So, as a marine scientist, I say: It’s not time to give up hope.

I have dedicated my life to the study of coral reefs and their conservation for the past 15 years. My job is to protect coral reef ecosystems and develop new strategies to turn the tide of rapid decline witnessed over the last four decades. I ask myself all the time, am I doing enough?

I don’t kid myself that coral reefs are doing fine, or that they will someday flourish in abundance the way they did just a few decades ago. But I do think there will be reefs in the future, and they will still provide critically important services to the people that depend on them.

We know reefs are changing and, given all that we have done to them, they will be changing for the foreseeable future. But they are not lost and will not be if we take proper action—and science is showing us the way.

Note: This post is adapted from a recent blog on Cool Green Science. Read the full post.

Stephanie Wear is a marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy. Her work has mainly focused on working with coral reef managers to reduce the killer threats to coral reefs. She is currently working to improve tools that build resilience in coral reef communities so that coral reefs survive the impacts of a changing climate. Stephanie’s passion for coral reefs is matched by her obsession with living green as she continues to find ways to reduce her family’s impact on the planet.



(Top image: Clown anemonefish in the Coral Triangle, Indonesia. Source: Jeff Yonover.)


JL A4 years ago

good information

Jennifer C.
Past Member 4 years ago


Connie O.
Connie O4 years ago

thank you for an informative article...we do need to protect our reefs.

Marcel Elschot
Marcel Elschot4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Aud Nordby
Aud nordby4 years ago


Bonnie M.
Bonnie M5 years ago

Thank you to the Nature Conservancy for this work. More power to you.

James Hager
James Hager5 years ago

good read, thanks!!!

Carrie Anne Brown

interesting article, thanks for sharing :)

Michael Kirkby
.5 years ago

Noted & Twittered. Thanks.

Tim U.
Tim Upham5 years ago

The problem is that climatic change cannot be reversed. The ocean is capable of absorbing 525 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. But now we have gone beyond that amount. Coral need zooxanthellae (a blue green algae) to survive, they perform the photosynthesis, just like with plants. Coral is a symbiosis of the animal polyps and the zooxanthellae. When the water reaches 91 Fahrenheit, it expels the zooxanthellae, and dies or coral bleaching. The sedimentation and dynamite fishing can be controlled, but not the climatic change.