Coral reefs across the tropics face multiple threats to their survival, and the degradation or destruction of the reefs have far reaching impacts, not just on the spectacular biodiversity that call them home but also to the local people who rely on them for food, livelihoods and protection from storm surges.
One recent report* by the International Coral Reef Initiative valued the Western Indian Ocean at US$333.8bn, with an annual economic output of around US$21bn, much of that relies upon the complex mosaic of fisheries, seagrass beds, mangroves and coral reefs. Reefs are key to local communities.
Some threats may be thought of as local: overfishing or destructive fishing, coastal development, or using reef ‘rock’ as building materials; others such as climate change and ocean acidification, which result in rising sea temperatures and changing ocean chemistry, are more insidious. One ocean phenomenon that has been shown to have drastic impacts on corals is the El Niño effect, which causes corals to bleach. These events appear to be getting stronger and more frequent; the last major event affected the Indian Ocean region in 2016.
In Mauritius, reef lagoons have not escaped from human and natural impact and have become severely degraded. Two Voluntary Marine Conservation Areas ( VMCAs) have been established with community stakeholders in the lagoons of Roches Noires and Anse La Raie and are the focus of research and monitoring by Reef Conservation; a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the coastal and marine environment of Mauritius**. An important aspect of Reef Conservation’s work is education and awareness-raising, working with local people to understand how they view and interact with these valuable natural assets and how they are managed to ensure they and the people that rely upon them have a sustainable future.
Reefs such as these will now become the focus for an international gathering of experts from around the Western Indian Ocean and the UK for a workshop where they will share their experiences of how communities are dealing with the threats to and degradation of reefs around the region.
Dr Caroline Hattam, a socio-economist from PML who is leading the project, hopes that by sharing resilience strategies, ideas of best practice can be taken back to delegates’ own communities. “Declining coral reefs is a serious problem across the West Indian Ocean and different communities are dealing with the problem in different ways. By bringing that experience together we hope to discover what works and what has been unsuccessful, what kinds of resilience strategies are being used at present, such as: the introduction of new technology, health programmes and microfinancing, to fisheries management, financing and certification schemes, marine protected areas and reef restoration, coral gardening, for example.”
Getting people involved is essential to the future of the reefs and, through engagement with the VMCA communities of Roches Noires and Anse La Raie, the project aims to find out if, through photographs and other visual activities, it becomes easier to talk about how people deal with change, whether these visual methods get people to think about their role in the natural environment in different ways and how they become an essential element of the solution. Outputs from the workshop will include a non-technical set of guidelines and best practice, as well as a video showing how visual methods can be used to engage people. The video and accompanying documentation will be used for training purposes across the Western Indian Ocean region.