Corals grow in the shallow waters around a small island in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. 

This researcher finds hope in ‘bright spots’ among coral reefs

Australian social scientist and reef researcher Joshua Cinner looks for “bright spots,” or reefs that are doing better than expected, to glean lessons for building resilience in the world's reefs, which are suffering from bleaching events.

The World

Australia's Great Barrier Reef — one of the natural wonders of the world — is experiencing its third major summer bleaching event in the last five years. New aerial surveys show more than half of the reef system has lost some of its vibrant colors.

Bleaching is caused partly by warming oceans and climate change and can eventually kill a coral reef. This year, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology recorded the highest ocean surface temperatures around the reefs since measurements started in 1900.

Australian social scientist and reef researcher Joshua Cinner is a research fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University Townsville. Cinner looks for “bright spots,” or reefs that are doing better than expected, to glean lessons for the rest of the world.

For this week's installment of The Big Fix, the World's climate solutions segment, Cinner speaks to host Marco Werman about solutions for the world's reefs.  

Related: What can COVID-19 teach us about the world's climate crisis?

Marco Werman: How do human activities impact the world’s coral reefs? 

Joshua Cinner: Climate change is only one of the drivers of change on coral reefs. Even if we solved climate change tomorrow, many of the world's coral reefs would still be overfished and suffering from pollution. And so, we need to be thinking about how we can build resilience in coral reefs themselves, but also in the coastal communities whose livelihoods depend on the beauty and bounty of coral reefs.

What attributes make some coral reefs fare better than others? And what can we learn from those reefs that might help sustain other reefs? 

That actually speaks directly to a study I did a couple of years ago. We conducted over 6,000 reef surveys across 46 countries and looked for places that for all intents and purposes should have been degraded, but weren't, and we called those our “bright spots.” Bright spots aren't necessarily pristine reefs, but rather reefs that are doing better than they should be, given the pressures that they face. They're reefs that are kind of punching above their weight. 

We found that bright spots were associated with having high levels of dependence on fishing. This seems kind of counterintuitive, but decades of research into common property institutions found that where people's livelihoods depend on resources, they're willing to develop and invest in creative solutions to environmental problems. We also found strong local traditions with the sea and high levels of participation in management by the local communities. 

I would guess you spend a good amount of time in reefs. Remind us of the variety of colors we should see among living coral species and how that contrasts with reefs that are bleached out. 

When you dive on an intact reef system, the colors are extraordinary. I mean, the color palette some of these individual fish have, you know, they seem like a Picasso painting. There's this large mosaic of gorgeous textures with tons of fish swimming everywhere.

Now, if you contrast that, typically degraded reefs get taken over by algae rather than this mosaic of colors and textures. You see a kind of brown or green algal mat. The structural complexity, which provides home to coral reef fish, that breaks down so the texture of it becomes much flatter. It’s one of the sadder things I've seen, and unfortunately, that's a story that's being repeated throughout the world.

You have a new study out today in the journal Science looking at reef management in 41 different countries. What did you learn in that study about what works and what doesn't in terms of how people manage the health of coral? 

Our study of nearly 1,800 tropical coral reefs identified the reefs that “have it all.” They were like the Hollywood A-listers of the coral reef world. And in short, we wanted to find out how local management efforts such as no-fishing marine reserves could help reefs get on the A-list. 

I think there's two important results from our study. The first is that A-listers are rare, but geographically widespread. The second important result is: location, location, location. Local management efforts can help core reefs sustain multiple goals, but only if they're placed in the right location. We found that marine reserves can make the biggest difference in locations with low human pressure. However, local management doesn't make much of a difference where human pressure is most extreme. So, I think these results are important to help determine how managers can maximize certain conservation goals and where they might be wasting their time. 

I know that as you move forward, you're auditing all your previous work, looking for what you call “exceptional responders.” What does that mean? 

We're taking a page from medicine. In oncology, there's a small minority of patients that have remarkable responses to drug therapy, and these are called the “exceptional responders.” Well, we're planning to do something analogous with coral reefs to find out which reefs are recovering remarkably, and which are doing worse, and why?

Three weeks ago, one of your colleagues, Terry Hughes, tweeted that bearing witness to the coral bleaching, it made him feel like “an art lover wandering through the Louvre as it burns to the ground.” How does focusing on solutions help you cope personally as the metaphoric museum burns to the ground? 

It's kind of in my veins. I've always been drawn to looking for solutions to hard environmental problems. But I also think that finding solutions is much more intellectually interesting than simply pointing out problems. As a social scientist, I think that many of the solutions to environmental problems are decidedly social in nature, and issues such as getting people to cooperate and act collectively are intellectually exciting and very challenging. That's kind of what keeps me going.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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