On 29 November 2016, scientists recorded the coral bleaching of two-thirds of a 700 kilometre stretch of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef over the course of the past nine months. This is reportedly the worst coral die-off recorded on the Great Barrier Reef. Furthermore, it is likely to be the largest recorded loss of coral in the world as the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, spanning over roughly 350,000 km2 and generates an estimated five billion dollars per year in Australian tourism.
The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has serious implications for local marine ecology and economic livelihoods. This reflects the worldwide trends of mass coral bleaching and loss of marine ecosystem biodiversity in an era of climate change. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, roughly 20 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have now been destroyed and this is anticipated to increase due to global warming and increased acidification of the ocean.
The world is currently experiencing more intense and widespread coral bleaching events largely due to stress induced by warmer ocean temperatures. The loss of these marine ecosystems and ocean warming results in the migration of fish stocks, which will likely affect coastal fishing communities that are heavily reliant on the ocean’s natural resources for their economic livelihoods and food security. In 2012, the World Resources Institute estimated that Comoros, Fiji, Grenada, Haiti, Indonesia, Kiribati, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Vanuatu are most vulnerable to coral loss. Many of these countries are located within the Indo-Pacific, namely the Coral Triangle and Melanesia.
The Coral Triangle encompasses the territorial waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and includes some of the most vulnerable countries to coral reef bleaching or degradation. The bioregion is home to roughly ten per cent of the global fish supply and is an important source of food for more than 100 million people. The Coral Triangle is at the critical nexus between marine conservation and food security. By 2050, it is projected that more than 90 per cent of the Coral Triangle’s reefs will be critically threatened.
South-east Asian countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, are most vulnerable to the loss of coral reefs, due to the heavy dependence upon marine biodiversity and stable fish populations for long-term economic and food security. Although innovations, such as aquaculture and aquaponics, might enhance food security, fishing communities within these countries could find these technologies inaccessible due to low educational attainment and lack of economic capital to set up and maintain these systems without the support of non-governmental organisations and international development aid agencies. In the Philippines, for example, fishing communities are estimated to have the highest poverty incidence within the country, sitting at 39.2 per cent, accompanied with relatively low education standards. Consequently, millions of people’s economic livelihoods and long-term food security are endangered with the loss of coral reefs particularly in South-east Asia.
Within the South Pacific, the Melanesian region is also significantly affected by coral bleaching and degradation. Around the world, global warming of ocean temperatures has forced fish populations to relocate in search of cooler and more habitable waters. The Melanesian fishery industry is valued at over seven billion dollars and fish remains an essential part of Melanesian diets. The global trend of fish migration and climate change endangers long-term food security, particularly in Melanesia, as countries such as Nauru, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia consume approximately 56, 33 and 26 kilogrammes per capita per year respectively. With this in mind, the bleaching and degradation of coral, in addition to potential fish migration, will likely threaten long-term food security in Melanesia.
The mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef should be a wakeup call for Australia to strategise and take leadership within the nexus of maritime conservation and food security in the Indo-Pacific. The destruction and degradation of coral reefs, the loss of marine biodiversity in combination with the key driver of fish migration in response to climate change will threaten millions of livelihoods within the broader Indo-Pacific region due to potential depletion of fish stocks, and this is most notable within the Coral Triangle bioregion and Melanesia. In the coming decades, it is incumbent for Australia, and the rest of the world, to truly prioritise marine ecosystem conservation and the multi-faceted challenges of food security.