On July 25, 2020, a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef on the southeast coast of Mauritius, leaking tons of oil into coral reefs, pristine turquoise water lagoons and unique ecosystems of the island nation.
The grounded ship split up, releasing more oil in the sea that is home to some of the finest coral reefs and marine protected areas in the world.
The oil spill has the potential of causing devastating and widespread impacts on the country that depends on her seas for food, livelihoods and tourism that accounts for 36% of Mauritius GDP and generates US$4.3 billion annually.
Oil spill threatens the fishing industry as boats and fishing gear may be damaged. In the case of a massive spill, human health may be affected through direct contact, inhalation of the oil or consumption of contaminated seafood.
While the country has declared a state of environmental emergency and disaster response is underway, the situation highlights the vulnerability of marine ecosystems and habitats such as mangroves, seagrasses and corals.
Oil, a complex mixture of many chemicals, can kill corals, depending on species and exposure. Chronic oil toxicity impedes coral reproduction, growth, behavior, and development. The time of year when a spill happens is critical since coral reproduction and early life stages are particularly sensitive to oil.
Efforts are already underway to better protect the underwater world.
Just two months before the Mauritius oil spill; the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), a long-standing partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), adopted a Recommendation to safeguard the future of coral reefs. It recognizes the vulnerability of coral reefs to climate change, ocean acidification, land-based pollution such as nutrients and sediments from agriculture, sea-based pollution, overfishing, among other activities.
Corals support a quarter of all marine life, provide at least half a billion people with food security and livelihoods; protect coastlines from damage by buffering shorelines against waves, storms and floods. Estimates indicate coral reefs account for $2.7 trillion per year in ecosystem service value.
The Recommendation, adopted in May 2020, after more than 18 months of work and stakeholder consultations, aims to get coral reefs and related ecosystems prioritized and monitored with rigorous indicators within the Convention on Biological Diversity Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework being decided in May of 2021.
It calls on countries to safeguard coral reef ecosystems, identifying a set of six coral related indicators for adoption and a further five indicators for priority development, to provide improved information on ecosystem integrity, function, intactness, and resilience.
How will the indicators help save coral reefs?
Monitoring clearly defined metrics consistently will enable countries to detect and act upon changes in reef ecosystems caused by human activity and natural threats.
Leticia Carvalho, Head of UNEP’s Marine and Fresh Water Branch, supports the Recommendation and said: “Coral reefs are the most biodiverse ecosystems in the ocean, housing approximately 25% of marine species and providing livelihoods for at least 500 million people around the world, but unfortunately they are also the most vulnerable ecosystem to climate change globally. The time is now for member states to join hands to address the global coral reef crisis.”
According to the IPBES 2019 Global Biodiversity assessment, almost half of coral reefs globally have already been lost. This puts on the line the safety, well-being, food, cultural heritage, and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people who depend on the ecosystem.
Coral reef protection is central to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) geared towards the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems to fight the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity.