United Nations develops new programme to save African coral reefs

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has launched a $10 million pilot scheme in East Africa to encourage the sustainable management of threatened coral reefs.

Several reefs in Kenya, the Seychelles and Madagascar have been chosen for a four-year development into ‘centres of excellence’ for reef management with lessons learnt on protecting and managing reefs for the benefit of local people, wildlife and tourists exported to other threatened reefs in the region, says the UNEP, which has secured $10 million from the United Nations Foundation to carry out the vital work.

East Africa’s reefs, are facing a heavy burden of threats, triggered by a boom in coastal development and marine-based activities over the past three decades along the region’s 6,900 miles (11,000 kilometres) of coast which is home to some 35 million people. Impacts from pollution are: dynamite fishing, over-fishing of reef areas, anchors being dropped on reefs, the plundering of corals as souvenirs, and fertilizer, sewage and soil run off from the land.

Meanwhile rising surface sea temperatures, such as those witnessed during the El Nino event of three years ago, are aggravating the decline of coral reefs. During that event up to 70% of Kenya’s corals were bleached and damaged. El Nino is supposed to occur every 10 to 15 years, but there is growing scientific evidence that it is returning far more frequently with some researchers linking this to global warming. Corals have evolved to grow close to their upper, safe, temperature limit because they are more productive, and have never had to go beyond that, but the kind of temperatures seen in 1998 are pushing them beyond that safe limit, UNEP says.

Agneta Nilsson, UNEP’s project coordinator for the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN), of which UNEP’s initiative forms a part, said in East Africa there were other tensions which were making it difficult to effectively conserve reefs. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been set up around many important reefs in the region where fishing by local, traditional, fishermen has been banned, but in some places this has created conflict between reef management staff and the local fishermen, who have been squeezed into less rich fishing grounds. This has been aggravated by the influx of big trawlers and factory fishing vessels from outside the region, such as the European Union, whose vessels operate just beyond the reefs and the MPAs. The reefs are also under pressure from the illegal collection of tropical fish for the world-wide aquaria trade.

Under the ICRAN initiative, four reef systems in the region are being targeted as demonstration sites where funds, expertise and equipment will be deployed to bring them up to the status of ‘centres of excellence’. These include the St Anne Marine Park and the Cousin Island Marine Protected Areas in the Seychelles, the former of which has zoned areas for underwater diving and protected zones for reefs and other important ecosystems including sea grasses and turtle nesting beaches. The other protected reef areas are the Nosy Atafana Marine Park in north east Madagascar, which is famous for its marine turtles and migrating and calving Humpback whales, and the Malindi-Watamu Marine National Parks in Kenya.

“Some of the reefs in the region, such as those in Kenya, are not only important for coral reefs but are important for mangrove swamps and sea grass beds,” commented Robert Hepworth, Deputy Director of UNEP’s Division of Environmental Conventions. “Improving their protection and management is not just going to benefit wildlife, boost the local economy and ensure their popularity as tourist destinations. But these ecosystems are important as natural coastal defences which will become ever more important as climate change raises sea levels and increases the frequency of severe weather events such as storm surges.”

“The ICRAN project, with generous funding from the UN Foundation, offers practical solutions and real hope of stemming the tide in favour of these beautiful and economically important marine areas,” said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director.

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