Protecting tropical oceans

Posted on April, 05 2011

Beneath the surface of our oceans lies an incredible world which we’ve fought for decades to protect.
Beneath the surface of our oceans lies an incredible world which we’ve fought for decades to protect.

You check your mask is sealed, bite the mouthpiece, breathe in, and plunge … into another world.

Fish of every colour of the rainbow swim through hallucinogenic gardens of coral, flitting past giant clams and starfish. A school of barracuda glides past in perfect formation. Sunbeams shine through translucent jellyfish while sharks lurk in the shadows. A ray swoops by in elegant slow motion. A turtle gives you a curious look.  

For anyone lucky enough to experience it, snorkelling or scuba diving on a coral reef is unforgettable. The extraordinary array of life within our tropical oceans is breathtaking.

But this strange world and its fascinating life forms are under threat. We’re fighting to save them.

What’s at stake?

The world’s coral reefs cover less than 1% of our oceans. But they’re home to a quarter of all marine life – scientists estimate there could be as many as 2 million species. Known as the “nurseries of the seas”, they’re where a quarter of fish species begin their lives, including ones like tuna that end up on your plate.
More than 450 million people live within 60 kilometres of coral reefs – and most of them rely on the reefs for food and income.

Coral reefs have huge economic value – the goods and services they provide are worth up to US$30 billion a year. Southeast Asia’s coral reef fisheries alone land catches worth around US$2.4 billion annually. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is worth more than US$1 billion a year to the tourism industry. They also protect coastlines, and the communities they shelter, from powerful, sometimes devastating, tropical storms.

To continue to reap these benefits, we need healthy reefs. But climate change, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, irresponsible tourism and pollution are putting them in peril.

We’ve already lost more than a quarter of the world’s coral reefs. At the current rate, 60% will be destroyed over the next 30 years.

More than 80% of the world’s shallow reefs are severely over-fished, leaving populations of many species on the brink of collapse.

Climate change is making our waters warmer, causing reefs to bleach and die. Bleaching used to be rare – between 1980 and 1993, there were 60 recorded bleaching events. In 2002 alone, there were more than 400, and it’s expected to become more common still. Oceans are also becoming more acidic from absorbing carbon dioxide, which affects the growth of coral reefs.

Coral reefs take tens of thousands of years to form. We can’t let them be destroyed in a few decades.

The story so far

Governments, fishermen, scientists, hoteliers, traditional leaders, multinational supermarkets: just some of the people we’re working with to secure the long-term future of the world’s most amazing tropical marine areas.

We’ve helped to set up marine reserves that protect priceless habitats from threats like destructive fishing and mineral extraction. We’ve also helped to improve the way people manage their marine resources, from better fishing practices to environmentally sensitive tourism.

Places we’ve helped protect include:
  • Galapagos Islands: we’ve worked for half a century to protect the extraordinary biodiversity of these islands, where Charles Darwin formulated his theories of natural selection. We played a big role in creating the Galapagos Marine Reserve – the second largest marine protected area in the world when it was set up in 1998.
  • Coral Triangle: the waters off the coast of South-east Asia and the Pacific are teeming with more marine life than anywhere else on the planet. We’ve helped protect extraordinary places like the Tubbataha Reefs in the Philippines – one of the world’s most astounding dive sites. It is now so abundant with marine life that one square kilometre contains as much as 300 tonnes of fish.
  • In 2009 we brought together heads of state from the six governments of the region to launch the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security – the most ambitious marine conservation plan ever seen.
  • Australia: we successfully campaigned to increase protection for the Great Barrier Reef in 2004. A third of the reef is now fully protected. Bottom trawling – perhaps the most environmentally damaging commercial fishing methods – used to be allowed on three-quarters of the reef. Now it’s permitted on less than a third.
  • East Africa: over the past decade, we’ve helped protect 15,000 sq km along the coast of Mozambique. We’re now working with local communities and the authorities to create a further 17,000 sq km protected area, which will be Africa’s largest marine park. 
  • Fiji: we successfully campaigned for the government of Fiji to commit to establish a network of marine protected areas for 30% of its seas. Local villages manage their own protected areas, which provide jobs as well as conserving the fish stocks they depend on.
  • West Africa: we’ve worked with governments in the region to create a network of protected areas to allow falling fish stocks to recover. Foreign fleets, mostly from Europe and Asia, fish West African waters intensively. We’re helping countries negotiate fairer, more environmentally balanced fishing agreements, while working with local communities to promote sustainable fishing practices.

Did you know?

Coral reefs are built by millions of living creatures called polyps, which live in colonies. Although soft-bodied, like sea anemones, they form hard, chalky skeletons, which become the basis of the reef.

Facts and figures

  • 2 million – species live in coral reefs
  • US$30 billion – estimated annual economic value of Coral Reefs worldwide
  • 33.4% - proportion of the Great Barrier Reef that’s now fully protected, up from just 4.6% before 2004
  • 109 – countries that have coral reefs
  • 16 – countries whose coral reefs are still pristine
  • 15 tonnes – amount of seafood an average kilometre of coral reef can provide in a year, if managed responsibly

WWF in action

You might expect a global icon like the Great Barrier Reef to be well protected. Yet 10 years ago this was far from true.

“The reef was generally regarded as well managed, but if you looked closer, it became clear there were a number of issues,” recalls Richard Leck from WWF Australia.

“Less than 5% of it was no-take zones where no fishing was allowed, destructive sea-floor trawling was allowed on three-quarters of the reef, there was run-off from coastal developments and farming. All the science suggested that the health of the reef and fish numbers were declining.”

That wasn’t an easy message to get across. Because the marine life of the Great Barrier Reef is so wondrous, it was hard to shake the perception that all was well – particularly when the vocal fishing lobby opposed new restrictions.

WWF commissioned scientists to identify the problems and come up with solutions. WWF also rallied public support and drew on the support of the tourism industry to persuade the government to give the reef the protection it needed.

In 2004 Australia created a network of marine sanctuaries covering a third of the reef – more than 110,000 sq km. Today, no fishing is allowed in these areas – and even fishers that opposed the idea back then are now won over.

“The government funded recreational fishing clubs to monitor no-take zones,” says Leck. “They found that numbers of popular species had increased two-to-three times. It’s worked incredibly well, incredibly quickly.”
That’s a testament to how well scientists and planners worked together to decide which areas needed the highest levels of protection. We’re now able to use similar technology, research methods and information to influence the way reefs are managed in other areas.

“We had international groups of top scientists saying what they thought should be included in no-take zones. That set a benchmark. It’s also shown governments that it’s possible to implement schemes on this scale,” adds Leck.

Shortly after our Great Barrier Reef campaign, we helped secure a similar level of protection for Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia. And in 2006, the US government created the world’s largest marine reserve in Hawaii.

Now we’re hoping to go even further. WWF Australia is campaigning to get the whole of the Coral Sea – the area beyond the Great Barrier Reef – declared a marine protected area, with a comprehensive network of no-take zones. At 1 million sq km – twice the size of France – it would be the largest marine park in the world.

What next?

Despite our efforts over the last 50 years, less than 1% of the world’s oceans are properly protected. In 2010, international governments committed to increase this to 10% – a huge improvement, though scientists believe we need to protect twice this much to allow marine species to recover.

We’re working with governments to help them fulfil these commitments, and make sure the most vital marine areas are protected. That also means working alongside local planners, fisheries managers, businesses and communities to make the long-term health of marine life a top priority in the decisions they make.

But protected areas alone are not enough. We’re also addressing the underlying threats facing coral reefs and the life they support by promoting responsible fishing, pushing for action on climate change and helping people make a better living by conserving their natural resources.

In particular, we’re focusing on:
  • Coastal East Africa: Some of the world’s most remarkable coral reefs lie just off the shores of Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. They’re vital to the survival of 25 million people living along the coast.
  • We want to see the region’s natural resources better managed, and we’re promoting sustainable trade. By 2025, we want to see at least half of tuna and shrimp exports – two of the region’s most valuable industries – come from sustainable sources.
  • Coral Triangle: We’re working with the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste to help them put ambitious conservation plans into action for this global centre of marine life.
  • And we’re working with fishing communities, businesses, buyers and retailers to help them profit from conserving the region’s natural wonders, through sustainable fishing and responsible tourism.
  • West Africa:  Fishing is the lifeblood of the seven coastal states ranging from Mauritania to Sierra Leone – one of the most productive fishing areas in the world.  Keeping the ocean healthy is a major priority for fishers and conservationists alike. 
  • We’re working with everyone from school children to heads of state to find ways to use nature’s gifts more wisely. We want everyone to understand that sustainable conservation and sustainable development are two sides of the same coin.

How you can help

Join the myWWF Action Center
Be part of a global community of activists ready to take simple online actions that can help save wildlife and people. Sign up today!


French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru) under Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) Cancun, Mexico.
© / Claudio Contreras / WWF
Fish caught in Tikina Wai, Fiji.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images
Atlantic spadefish amongst the roots of red mangrove trees, Belize Cays, Belize.
© / Tim Laman / WWF
Detail of Soft coral, close up. Fiji is famous throughout the world for spectacularly rich and vibrant soft coral reefs.
© Cat Holloway / WWF