Despite substantial conservation efforts, human impacts are harming coral reefs all over the world. That in turn affects the millions of people who depend on reefs for their livelihoods. It’s a gloomy picture, but there are some bright spots.
In a study that appears on the cover of this week’s Nature, I and 38 international colleagues identify 15 places around the world where the outlook is not so bleak. Many of them are in surprising places like Pacific island states, which may not have lots of money for conservation but do have a close social connection to the health of their oceans.
Unlike scientific studies that look at averages or trends, we took a slightly different approach and focused on the outliers – the places bucking the trend. This type of “bright spot” approach has been used in a range of fields, including business, health and human development, to search for hope against backgrounds of widespread failure.
One example is in Vietnam, where the charity Save the Children looked at poor children who bucked the trend of widespread malnutrition. They discovered that poor families with healthier kids were collecting small crabs and shrimp from their rice paddies and grinding them into their kids' food, and feeding them smaller, more frequent meals. These practices have now spread to more than 2.2 million families, cutting childhood malnutrition by 65%.
This is a great example of local habits that, once identified and spread more widely, have had a hugely beneficial impact. My colleagues and I wanted to see if we could do the same for the world’s coral reefs.
Searching For Bright Spots
We carried out more than 6,500 reef surveys across 46 countries, states and territories around the world and looked for places where reef fisheries should have been degraded, but weren’t.
We defined these bright spots as reefs with more fish than expected, based on their exposure to pressures like human population, poverty and unfavourable environmental conditions. To be clear, bright spots are not necessarily “pristine” reefs, but rather reefs that are doing better than they should be given the circumstances. They are reefs that are “punching above their weight”.