Reef Futures The future of reef services in the Anthropocene: Newsletter 01

Photo credit: The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey


Welcome to the first Reef Futures e-newsletter. Here you'll be able to find out about the Reef Futures project, who's involved, what we've been up to this past year, what we're planning for the upcoming year and why we're doing it.

The problem we're facing

For millennia, humans have had a strong connection with coral reefs, relying on the abundant biodiversity the reefs host for food, raw materials, spirituality and medicine. Shallow reefs support a quarter of our marine life and provide a plethora of benefits for people and nature, estimated at USD 375 billion annually. However, nearly two thirds of our marine environment have been significantly impacted by our actions, threatening a third of reef forming corals and they ecosystem services they deliver.

In order to achieve sustainable human development and increase the well-being of those dependent on shallow reefs, whilst also ensuring the conservation of our reefs and the biodiversity they support, we must consider human and natural systems together.

Surprisingly, we still do not have integrated scenarios for understanding the future of the complex dynamics of shallow reef ecological systems and our social systems. Without this information, we cannot make informed decisions to undertake transformational change to protect coral reefs and the benefits they deliver for people and nature.

Photo credit: Simon J. Pierce / Coral Reef Image Bank

Our vision

To address this need, the Reef Futures team will explore the ecosystem services of coral reefs under different scenarios to better anticipate their futures within a context of global change. We will move beyond the usual story-line of trade-offs between people and biodiversity and instead explore win-win scenarios where we can secure key ecosystem services on shallow reefs around the world under a changing climate.

Through a collaboration of 19 partners over 4 years, the Reef Futures project will undertake two main areas of work:

Understanding current ecosystem services

Using data from over 5,000 reef fish surveys around the world, our team will determine the conditions which maintain or threaten five key ecosystem services provided by reef fishes to humans:

1) Nutrition: Reefs provide food security to many coastal dwelling people and for many, fish is their only source of protein.

2) Livelihoods: Healthy reef fish stocks in the ocean provide livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people through the fishing industry.

3) Nutrient cycling: Through eating, excreting, swimming and other means, fish help nutrients move through the natural environment, benefiting organisms.

4) Carbon cycling: Similar to nutrient cycling, fish help to transfer carbon through the oceanic phase of the carbon cycle, an element key for all living organisms.

5) Cultural values: Reefs have high cultural importance to those who depend on the reef for resources, as well as to ecotourists.

Photo credit: The Ocean Agency / Coral Reef Image Bank

Predicting the future of these ecosystem services

Once we have gained an understanding of the ecosystem services shallow reefs currently provide, the potential futures of these ecosystem services will be predicted under various global change scenarios, as well as the social-ecological systems underlying them. Using scenarios that take account of human demography, economic development and climate change, along with predictive models, the project will simulate the dynamics of shallow reef ecosystems and their ability to deliver services during the next century. This information will be disseminated to help inform decision making and improve the management of our vulnerable coral reefs.

Photo credit: Umeed Mistry / Coral Reef Image Bank

Where are we working?

Reef Futures has a total of 19 project partners carrying out a mixture of fieldwork and research across the globe. As more fieldwork is carried out during 2020, the number of fieldwork sites will increase.

Map created by Adam Turney / UNEP-WCMC

Stories from the water: How much carbon do reef fish produce?

November 2019 marked the first set of field expeditions for the Reef Futures project. Researchers from the Reef Systems Research Group at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (RS-ZMT) traveled to the turquoise waters of Palau for 3 months to investigate the contribution of reef fishes to carbon cycling. Carbon is a life-sustaining element so it is important to all life on Earth. It naturally moves in between the atmosphere, ocean and living organisms. Fish are thought to be responsible for 3-15% of carbon production in the oceans, making them a major part of the oceanic component of the carbon cycle.

A fish collected during the field expedition to Palau. Photo credit: Mattia Ghilardi

The faeces of 138 fish of 52 species were collected and the samples will be tested back in Germany at ZMT to see how much carbonates are within the faeces. The amount of carbon produced per individual fish and per species will be calculated. By doing this, we can see how reef fishes are contributing towards the carbon cycle and providing this essential ecosystem service of carbon cycling.

The tanks used to collect fish faeces during the field expedition to Palau. Photo credit: Pia Lewin

What's on the horizon for the Reef Futures team in 2020?

Exploring carbon cycling in new waters

After a successful field expedition to Palau, the next steps for the team are to test the faeces samples from the fish to see how much carbon they contain, and by extension, how important reef fishes are to the carbon cycle. A second field expedition will take place later this year to French Polynesia where similar samples will be collected, but from fishes exposed to different temperatures and carbon dioxide levels.

Photo credit: The Ocean Agency / Coral Reef Image Bank

Building models

Over the coming weeks and months our team will be collecting comprehensive data on reef fish and environmental and socio-economic conditions of different reefs. Using this data, statistical models will be built to see how present-day ecosystem services provided by shallow reefs are affected by environmental, social and economic drivers. As the project develops, these models will be tested to see how future climate and human development projections affect these drivers, and therefore how they will affect the ability of shallow reefs to provide ecosystem services in the future. By identifying the drivers affecting current and future reef ecosystem services, we can identify conservation priorities and areas of intervention, so that we can maintain, or even improve, ecosystem services into the future.

Photo credit: François Baelen / Coral Reef Image Bank

Meet some of the Reef Futures team

Dr. Sonia Bejarano, Head of the Reef Systems Research Group, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT). Role: Overseeing the global assessment of reef services and specifically the quantification of the contributions of coral reef fishes to marine carbon cycling in collaboration with Dr. Valeriano Parravicini.
Mr. Mattia Ghilardi, PhD Student, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT). Role: Compile a global database of fish carbonate excretion rates and experimentally quantify the effects of key environmental factors on fish carbonate egestion rates.
Dr. M. Aaron MacNeil, Associate Professor & Canada Research Chair in Fisheries Ecology, Dalhousie University. Role: Overseeing the development of hierarchical statistical models for quantifying relationships between reef ecosystem services and their environmental, social, and economic drivers.
Dr. Matthew McLean. Postdoctoral Researcher, Dalhousie University. Role: Statistical modelling of present-day and future ecosystem services in relation to environmental, social and economic drivers.
Dr. Marie Pontoppidan, Postdoctoral Researcher, NORCE Norwegian Research Centre AS. Role: Using computer models for regional downscaling of the present day climate, and the climate in the future.

Partners of the Reef Futures project

Thank you for reading our 2020 e-newsletter. We'll be back in early 2021 with more stories from the Reef Futures project.

To find out more about the project, please email David Mouillot | david.mouillot@umontpellier.fr

Photo credit: Yen-Li Lee / Coral Reef Image Bank