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UN envoy says of the threat to coral reefs: ‘Are we faced with a colossal ecosystem tragedy? Yes’

ATHENS, Greece — The world is not doing enough to protect coral reefs, the United Nations’ special envoy for the ocean said Tuesday in defense of the marine ecosystems that protect biodiversity, sustain underwater life and produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

In an interview with The Associated Press on the sidelines of an international ocean conference in Greece, Peter Thomson suggested that all significant coral reefs should be included in marine protected areas under what is known as the “30×30” initiative — a plan to designate 30% of the world’s land and ocean areas as protected areas by 2030.

Top reef scientists on Monday announced that coral reefs are experiencing global bleaching for the fourth time — and the second time in just 10 years – as a result of warming oceans amid human-caused climate change.

Bleaching occurs when stressed coral, which are invertebrates, expel the algae that provide their food and give them their vibrant colors. Although the coral can recover, severe and prolonged bleaching can kill it.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and International Coral Reef Initiative said on Monday that coral bleaching across at least 53 countries, territories or local economies has been confirmed since February 2023.

Although much is being done to protect coral reefs around the world, the prime cause driving events such as global bleaching is the burning of fossil fuels, which leads to greenhouse gas emissions and warming oceans, Thomson said.

“Is enough being done? The answer is definitely not,” he said. “And the ‘done’ factor is the transition away from burning fossil fuels.”

Thomson said he believes some more resilient coral will survive, and noted efforts to preserve coral in facilities such as aquariums. But “are we faced with a colossal ecosystem tragedy? Yes, definitely. And we can’t escape that,” he said. “The fourth mass bleaching is just … a harbinger of what’s coming.”

Sometimes described as underwater rain forests, coral reefs support a quarter of marine species and form crucial barriers that protect coastlines from the full force of storms. They also provide billions of dollars in revenue from tourism, fishing and other commerce.

Thomson said that including significant reefs in the “30×30” initiative would be a feasible way of increasing their protection. Extending them the safeguards afforded to marine protected areas would be “very valuable for the preservation of the reefs,” he said.

“You can’t have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean. And the ocean’s health is currently measurably in decline,” Thomson said.

Thomson, an ambassador from Fiji who was appointed as the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for the ocean in 2017, vowed to continue the fight.

“You can’t condemn your grandchildren to a world with no coral, to a world on fire,” he said. “That’s not the world we’re going to give our grandchildren.”

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