Commonwealth countries are to gain free access to satellite technology that will help them monitor and protect their endangered coral reefs from threats such as climate breakdown, overfishing and pollution.
Commonwealth countries hold nearly half of the world’s remaining tropical coral reefs, with 47 out of the 54 member countries having a coastline. Nearly half of them are islands or groups of islands, which face particular threats from the climate crisis, and for whom coral reefs are often vital protections against storms as well as fish nurseries and tourist attractions.
“Whatever we do as a Commonwealth family will make a massive contribution to safeguarding the coral reefs that we are dependent on globally,” said Baroness Patricia Scotland, secretary general of the Commonwealth. “We feel this real responsibility around the world. The Commonwealth can change the trajectory of this crisis, if our members are willing to work together, and we will.”
Nearly all the reefs are at risk of extinction in the coming decades as the climate crisis takes hold, and nearly half of the world’s reefs have already been destroyed or badly damaged in the last 30 years owing to changes in the climate, overfishing, pollution and other exploitation. About 250 million people are directly dependent on coral reefs for their livelihoods.
The technology will use high-resolution satellite images and data analyses to allow marine scientists, government officials and policymakers to monitor the health of coral reefs and take the action needed to protect them. Software will be provided to countries free through the Commonwealth’s partnership with Vulcan Inc, a US-based group founded by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen, and a new interactive coral reef map will be hosted online at the Commonwealth Innovation Hub.
“[Countries] need data to know what they can do within their tight budgets,” Scotland told the Guardian in an interview. “Being able to share information will galvanise us.”
She said the climate and ecological crises, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, required urgent action, and the health of the oceans was a key part of the global ecosystem. “The world is saying to us, ‘I can’t breathe,'” she said. “When we stop [exploiting it], nature restores itself very rapidly. But we have not got a lot of time.”
The Commonwealth will open up a demonstration of the project on Monday, designated as World Oceans Day, as countries around the world seek to improve the management of their own waters and the high seas.
In the UK, the government on Monday published a review of ocean protections that has recommended setting up new highly protected marine areas, where fishing, dredging, oil drilling, construction and all other forms of exploitation would be banned.
The UK currently has a “blue belt” network of 355 marine protected areas, where activities such as fishing are restricted. The review, led by former fisheries minister Richard Benyon, would require these to be expanded with new zones where everything would be off limits, except for shipping moving through the area and non-damaging leisure activities such as scuba diving and kayaking.
Joan Edwards, director of marine conservation at the Wildlife Trusts, said letting stretches of sea return to their natural state could be a revelation, in allowing marine life to recover after decades of overexploitation. “Our seas are in an impoverished state, and it’s hard for our generation to comprehend how abundant our waters once were. Cod were once as long and wide as humans are tall, and whales, dolphins and basking sharks were many times more common than they are today,” she said. “We need to let the sea show us what it’s capable of.”
Today’s marine protected areas serve only to maintain basic protections against some of the most damaging activities, such as bottom trawling, according to campaigners, and the protections vary across locations.
Ministers have yet to respond to the Benyon review’s findings. Philip Evans, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “It’s important that these recommendations not only become a reality, but grow in ambition to cover at least 30% of the UK’s waters by 2030, instead of sitting on ministers’ desks gathering dust.”
The government is currently locked in a battle with the EU over fishing rights after Brexit. British fishermen argue that they have been disadvantaged for decades by agreements reached when the UK was joining the EU in the 1970s that gave greater access rights to foreign vessels, with the result that the majority of the catch in some UK waters now goes to EU fleets. But as part of any Brexit deal, the EU wants to preserve access to British waters for its vessels, as the fishing fleets in several member states would suffer otherwise.
Campaigners are concerned that amid the squabbles, the pledges by both the EU and the UK to halt overfishing and abide by scientific advice on catch size will be lost.