Abu Dhabi: At least 75 per cent of coral reefs in Gulf waters have been lost due to mismanagement of marine resources and global warming, according to statistics revealed on the final day of the Coral Reefs of Arabia Conference held at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

“We actually know enough science about [coral] reefs to able to resolve the question, but it’s not a question for science any more. It’s a question of governance, management, human interaction and relationships,” Professor Charles Sheppard of Warwick University said.

Sheppard highlighted how manmade conditions combined with global warming have affected the reefs.

“We’ve got what I call the local group of impacts, all the usual ones, sewage, overfishing, sedimentation, and construction. Added to that we have the global group, acidification and warming caused by the carbon dioxide blankets. I’m often asked which is the most important of all these [in harming the coral reefs] and you just can’t answer that, it depends on what the local pressures are, and when it comes to the global group, I suspect it’s the warming that’s causing the immediate killing [of coral reefs].”

Sheppard recommended that steps be taken to reverse some of the above trends, such as banning landfills in coral reef areas, as well as regulations within the fishing industries, and for scientific research on the issue to be taken seriously and acted on through government policies in order to protect the reefs.

With the loss of coral reefs also comes the loss of species that are dependent on the reefs for their survival, with several species under threat according to Professor John Bartz from the University of Miami.

“Not surprisingly coastal development affected 17 species, then going after that was climate change affecting six species, and then fisheries surprisingly having fewer threats to the species [four species under threat]. Of the coral reef-dependent species, once we do the reassessment [of species under threat] I would imagine that the majority of those are not doing so well, and of course coastal development is the most prevalent threat to the species here [Gulf].”

One method of protection that was raised during the conference was the implementation of marine-protected areas, advocated by Professor Hanneke Van Lavieren, from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. She said, “We’ve heard about the multitude of serious threats that the marine environment here faces, both natural and human induced, so the need to protect at least whatever is left makes sense. One of the tools available to do this is marine-protected areas. If well established and managed, then a network of marine protected areas can be quite effective in protecting some parts of our marine environment.”

According to Professor Lavieren, the marine protected areas can be established to protect several different aspects of the marine environment. “They can be established to protect biodiversity, specific species or habitats. They can be established to maintain ecosystem functioning, and they can also provide refuge to a threatened species. More recently we hear more about their role in enhancing the resilience of coastal systems and reducing the risk for disasters.”

More than 20 sites in the UAE have already been designated as marine protected areas according to Lavieren.