Is There Room for Ocean Optimism on the Coral Reef Front?


By Dr Nancy Knowlton

Coral reef biologist Nancy Knowlton reflects on the recent International Coral Reef Symposium, sharing some of the challenges – and the optimism – that we can take to the upcoming International Marine Conservation Congress.

Once every four years, we coral reef scientists gather to present our work and exchange ideas. The 2016 International Coral Reef Symposium has just ended in Honolulu, and one might have thought that this year would be a rather gloomy affair. After all, the heat from the 2014-2016 El Niño has brought record-breaking death and destruction to reefs around the world. At Jarvis Island in the Central Pacific, part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument of the US, perhaps as many as 95% of the corals have died.  The news from the Great Barrier Reef has been heartbreaking, with the most pristine northern section damaged to an unprecedented degree. In fact, the news has been so bad that presidents of the International Society for Reef Studies, which hosted the meeting, took the unprecedented step of writing to the Australian Government to urge action.

Yet despite all of the bad news, this was not a doom and gloom meeting. Scientists set aside their minor disagreements and were remarkably unified in their messages. Solutions took front and center stage, with the recognition that these have to occur at both local and global scales – to build the resilience of coral reefs and reduce the magnitude and impacts of global change. The president of the society, Dr. Ruth Gates, spoke eloquently in her closing remarks about the importance of cutting edge research designed to help corals make it through “assisted evolution.”

Most importantly, some of the solutions for the coral reef crisis are not decades away – they are already yielding results. Just before the meeting, Dr. Josh Cinner and his colleagues published a paper entitled “Bright spots among the world’s coral reefs”. They brought together data from over 2500 reefs to look for examples of particularly successful management. Specifically, they examined the amount of fish on these reefs to find places where the biomass of fish was greater than would otherwise be expected. They found 15 examples of these bright spots, and identified their shared characteristics. Notably, a high level of local engagement in management was important, suggesting that when people care and work together, things can get better. An earlier study led by Dr. Jeremy Jackson on the health of Caribbean corals came to a similar conclusion. Indeed, he reported at the conference that simple indices of good governance were among the best predictors of the amount of live coral on Caribbean reefs. The conference also reported on great strides being made in the field of reef restoration.

Are Coral Reef Scientists All Doom and Gloom?

Read this insightful analysis of #OceanOptimism at the International Coral Reef Symposium 2016 by Kirsty L. Nash.

So are we out of the woods when it comes to reefs? Of course not. And everything we are doing on a local scale to protect and restore coral reefs will be in vain if we do not reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But as Dr. Terry Hughes (who led the recent survey of the damage to the Great Barrier Reef) put it, we’re not ready to write the obituary for the world’s coral reefs.

At the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC4) in St. John’s, Newfoundland at the end of the month, we will continue these discussions and extend them to the broader ocean environment. We will tackle the challenges through meaningful engagement with both the problems and the solutions, communicating successes and sharing optimism for the marine environment.

OO logo hashtag small

The hashtag #OceanOptimism, a flag for stories of marine conservation success, has been shifting the conversation beyond the doom and gloom since World Oceans Day 2014 – since then #OceanOptimism has reached over 60 million unique Twitter accounts.

Please join us at these IMCC4 and OceansOnline events to share stories of positivity, inspiration and success:

  • Ocean Optimism booth: Share your story of hope (open throughout the conference)
  • IMCC4 workshop: Local action, global learning: Sharing blue solutions (Mon 1st Aug)
  • OceansOnline workshop: Curating stories of success: Best practices & platforms for stories of #OceanOptimism (Thu 4th Aug)
  • OceansOnline discussion: A wave of ocean optimism: How and why we should talk about success in marine conservation (Thu 4th Aug)

For more information please contact IMCC4 Communications Co-Chair Marianne Teoh.


Dr Nancy Knowlton is Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a notable marine scientist. She is a scientific leader of the Census of Marine Life and wrote to book Citizens of the Sea to celebrate the census. Nancy is one of the inspirational figures behind the social change movement #OceanOptimism and will be leading workshops and discussions at the International Marine Conservation Congress this 28th July – 4th August.





One thought on “Is There Room for Ocean Optimism on the Coral Reef Front?

  1. Kenneth J Clark

    to our marine research conservationists, I wish each & everyone of you, continued oportunity, enlightenment, inspiration, momentum, influence and success; and all the very best.
    Kenneth J Clark – Retired – Calgary

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