Karen Sack – This weekend wasn’t just another day at the office. I was on a boat at the edge of Belize’s Great Blue Hole with Sir Richard Branson, Fabian Cousteau, Aquatica submarines, the Discovery Channel and a team of experts and film-makers on an expedition aimed at raising Ocean awareness and highlighting the need to protect at least 30 per cent of the Ocean by 2030.
There is nothing like a voyage to one of the most amazing places on Earth to remind all of us just how beautiful our planet is and how critical it is that we protect its assets. And what better place to mark the final month of the International Year of the Reef than here at the mysterious sunken heart of the Belize Barrier Reef, part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that stretches 900km from Mexico to Honduras.
All this year at Ocean Unite and with our partners, we’ve been celebrating the beauty and bounty of the world’s reefs, and drawing attention to the many threats they face, from plastic pollution and chemical run-off, to the bleaching caused by warming ocean temperatures. The recent report from the IPCC warning that coral reefs would decline by 70-90 per cent under 1.5°C of global warming – and be almost completely lost if we reach 2°C – is a global alarm bell that must not be ignored. It’s an “all hands on deck” moment!
The first-ever submersible descent to the very bottom of the Blue Hole that Fabien Cousteau and Sir Richard Branson achieved this weekend with amazing sub pilot Erika, brought the issue of sea level rise up to the surface – a reminder of how quickly things are changing in our ocean today and why we need all need to act together. The Belize Barrier reef is absolutely stunning. It’s size and scale incredible. Being able to learn first-hand from some of Belize’s wonderful ocean activists and reef custodians of the sheltering protections that it and the mangroves that grow on several of its islands provide, was enlightening.
Everyone knows that coral reefs are spectacular, but it is less common knowledge that reefs are a vital source of food and livelihoods to people in over 100 countries and protect our shorelines from storm damage. They play host to a quarter of all marine species – marine cities with countless inhabitants, big and small. Coral reefs attract tourists as part of a multi-billion-dollar industry that creates jobs and opportunities in coastal and island communities around the world. And they are incredible natural seawalls protecting millions of us, our families, communities and businesses from ocean risk hazards like the storm surge from extreme storm events. They are among the most precious and fragile ecosystems on Earth and it is high time we valued and protected them accordingly.
Investing in the protection and restoration of coral reefs is good for business, good for local people, and good for the Ocean. For example, a new study led by UN Environment calculates that if we get to work now to protect the Mesoamerican reef, a healthy reef could deliver $34.6 billion in added economic benefits by 2030. That’s an extra $2.5 billion a year. By contrast, if business continues as usual, and the reef continues to decline, its value to local economies could fall by $3.1 billion per year. The figures are similar for other reefs, like the Coral Triangle in South East Asia. This new look at the coral reef economy clearly shows that shifting from the current trajectory of declining reef health could unlock tens of billions of dollars – money that can be channelled into climate-smart development, education and new jobs, and mitigate the risks from climate change. It’s a win-win opportunity for communities, businesses and nature.
Making this positive shift away from the ongoing slide towards reef deterioration – with all the financial, social and environmental benefits that it promises – is within our reach. The UN study shows that proven interventions, like establishing no-take marine protected areas, enhanced wastewater management, and reducing coastal erosion through afforestation, can all make a huge difference. Local people are also rewarded with improved storm protection, more sustainable local fisheries and all the opportunities delivered by a buoyant tourism sector.
What’s needed now is for governments and businesses to invest in a healthy reef future. Thanks to natural wonders like the Great Blue Hole and the surrounding reefs, Belize has become a top destination for marine tourism, including diving, sailing, whale and shark spotting. But to keep this global reputation, it is vital that it protect its waters, beaches and biodiversity – all of which are closely tied to the health of the reef.
Read full blog