Reefs at Risk

7. The monitoring programme

Corals may be almost ideal indicators of climate change. Scientists have already used corals to obtain information on past climate.

Corals may be almost ideal indicators of climate change. Some corals show annual bands that can be read like tree rings, and provide better evidence of past climate than deep-sea sediments, which tend to get mixed by the organisms in them. Scientists have already used this source of information to obtain a picture of past climate and environmental conditions on particular reefs.

As climate change has forced itself onto the agenda of the international community, the scientific and management potential of coral reef monitoring has become more widely appreciated. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the status and health of the world's coral reefs remains patchy. Informal networks of scientists, bilateral programmes such as the ASEAN-Australia Project on Living Coastal Resources and regional efforts such as the Caribbean Coastal Marine Productivity Programme (CARICOMP) are all taking measurements on coral reefs. Most of these efforts are directed towards answering questions about specific and limited issues such as fisheries, pollution or scientific problems. As a result there is still no authoritative and quantitative global assessment of reef health and condition. Even in the case of bleaching that has killed corals across the world, scientists are divided as to the causes. Some see the bleaching as an early signal of greenhouse warming. Others consider the coral deaths as an indicator of stresses on reefs caused by human activities or simply a result of tile natural variability of the environment. They believe that bleaching may be part of a natural adaptation process.


The Long-Term Global Monitoring System of Coastal and
Near-Shore Phenomena Related to Climate Change

The programme has six activities in its pilot phase, giving coral reef and mangrove monitoring priority among biological systems.

In 1990 IOC in collaboration with UNEP and WMO commissioned a study on the need for a global network of coastal sites at which to monitor the impact of climate change. This led to a meeting of experts held in Paris in December 1990. The sponsoring agencies approved the recommendations from this meeting for a global coastal monitoring programme with six activities in the pilot phase.

The programme provides for a Long-Term Global Monitoring System of Coastal and Near-Shore Phenomena Related to Climate Change. This will draw on existing and planned activities for collecting and exchanging data. It will also make arrangements to carry out measurements that are not taken at the moment, such as biological and chemical observations.

The pilot phase activities cover:

  • sea-level change and coastal flooding;

  • coastal circulation;

  • assessment of organic carbon accumulation in surface coastal sediments;

  • changes in plankton community structure;

  • benthic communities of coral reef ecosystems; and

  • terrestrial vegetation in mangrove communities.

Nudibranch in a coral reef at Tuamotu, French Polynesia. Monitoring the health of reef systems and their components could yield essential data for determining the effects of climate change.

Photo: WWF / Yves Lefevre / BIOS

Preparing coral rock for construction

Data collected would be valuable to coastal zone managers in places where reefs form a major source of renewable resources.

The whole monitoring system will form part of a proposed Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), itself part of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) being put together by a number of international organisations.

The first two pilot activities are important components of the ocean-observing system, while carbon accumulation is an important issue for scientists seeking to understand the sources and sinks of carbon on a global scale. Studying the plankton, mangrove and coral reef communities will provide essential information about the biological systems of coastal wetlands, marine benthic ecosystems and pelagic communities. Of these three, coral reef and mangrove monitoring have been given priority.

Experts at the Paris meeting said that data collected over 2-3 years could provide a baseline status report on the health of reef systems in selected sites. This would be valuable to coastal zone managers in places where reefs form a major source of renewable resources. Priority during the pilot phase will go to developing standardised formats for exchanging data.

Two further meetings were held in December 1991. The first was a workshop in Amersfoort, Netherlands, organised by IUCN, WWF International, the Royal Netherlands Institute of Public and Environmental Health and the US Environmental Protection Agency which reviewed the potential impacts of climate change on coral reefs. The workshop indicated five key research needs and also called urgently for a reduction of sediment and nutrient loads on coral reefs.

The second meeting co-sponsored by UNEP, IOC, WMO and IUCN brought together 18 experts on coral reef and mangrove biology. This meeting took into

consideration the reviews prepared in Amersfoort in amplifying and developing the proposed monitoring scheme recommended by the Paris meeting.

Several other organisations joined the original sponsors in holding a workshop in Guam on 22-26 June 1992 in conjunction with the 7th International Coral Reef Symposium. This meeting enabled the organisers to test the reactions of the scientific community to the proposed network and pilot phase monitoring programme. They backed the programme and suggested all institutions and organisations should be encouraged to participate in implementing the pilot phase.

The scientists noted that 5-10 laboratories are currently capable of very sophisticated monitoring and analysis, but they also found an obvious need for a more extensive network so that more institutes and researchers could be involved, particularly to identify global trends. This means simple data collection methods should also have a place in the programme. The scientists suggested these less technology-dependent techniques could be linked with more sophisticated systems through simultaneous activities.

The pilot phase

The pilot phase of the global monitoring system is deliberately low-key. It does not aim to replace or overshadow existing programmes. The objective, in fact, is to provide a framework for closer co-operation. Governments and organisations contributing to the system will be able to get access to much larger amounts of information and expertise.

To obtain a comparable global overview of the state of the world's coral reefs, only a "one-off' monitoring exercise would be needed. Provided enough laboratories and individuals took part, the data collected would give sufficient information to provide a baseline from which to work. The "one-off" monitoring effort would also enable the scientists to revise the way they work to ensure that future data generated through the programme is more compatible and exchange of information is easier.

The one-off project will facilitate the selection of the most suitable sites for long-term monitoring of coral reefs and will encourage some countries to continue of their own accord.

The program's initial objectives are:

  • to secure the commitment of member States to start the pilot phase;

  • to ensure co-ordination between existing and planned activities to

  • monitor coral reefs;

  • to begin preliminary monitoring of selected sites worldwide; and

  • to strengthen existing regional networks of institutions, particularly by providing facilities for inter-regional and global collaboration in data handling and exchange.

During the initial stage the GOOS Support Office of the IOC Secretariat has been designated to co-ordinate implementation of the work programme, particularly with regard to quality control, handling and exchange of data from the monitoring system.

The programme's objectives are to: secure commitment, ensure co-ordination, begin monitoring, and strengthen existing networks.

Coral reefs are important to the well-being of people

IOC and WMO have considerable experience in international data management, quality control, handling, storage and exchange of technical information. They specialise in systems that enable contributors to tap into a much larger network.

The intergovernmental agencies sponsoring the programme have long experience in promoting international co-operation between governments and can provide a mechanism to stimulate support activities at a national level. They are also specialists in facilitating the transfer of expertise, funds and equipment from higher-income nations to developing countries to enable the lower-income states to take part in international activities. The agencies' programmes already cover training, education and assistance in marine science.

With national government focal points for their activities, the UN agencies can help avert a conflict of interests. IUCN-The World Conservation Union, with some 770 members among governments, agencies and environmental organisations, also has several networks of scientists. Its specialist commissions can mobilise a unique pool of ecological expertise. IUCN is particularly interested in using marine parks and protected areas as long-term monitoring sites, and could include such monitoring as a management objective in guidelines it is drawing up for administering such areas.

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March 30, 2010