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Nobel-winning market theory could help coral reefs be protected.
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Nobel-winning market theory could help coral reefs be protected.

Nobel-winning market theory could help us better protect coral reefs


A group of researchers from Australia’s University of Queensland used a revolutionary stock market theory to identify 50 coral reefs around the world that will likely be less affected by the climate crisis and use them as ‘arks’ to help repopulate other reefs. These reefs should be protected as a priority for future conservation efforts, according to the researchers. 

Image credit: Flickr/WorldFish.

Coral reefs are under threat from both local and global stressors like overfishing, decreasing water quality, and rising ocean temperatures. They are likely to disappear entirely or almost entirely by mid-century if the target of the Paris Agreement on climate change to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius isn’t met. Even if it is, an estimated 70% to 90% of the world’s corals would still vanish.

However, the coral populations remaining are being destroyed. still very importantCoral reefs can be restored once the ocean surface temperatures stabilize in future. According to the Australian researchers who led the study, the challenge is to find these reefs and to direct resources to ensure coral conservation in the face of climate change. 

The team tried to find a solution. Modern Portfolio TheoryMPT (a mathematical framework developed in the 1950s to maximize returns for investors) to identify coral-reef sanctuaries that can withstand climate change and repopulate other reefs after it passes. They identified 50 reefs around the globe.

“By applying MPT to conservation planning, the expected variance in those conservation outcomes can be reduced by investing in areas that tend to behave in different ways. This is of particular interest when decisions about where to act are informed by uncertain projections about future states of the world,” the researchers wrote.

Protect corals better

For the study, the researchers classified the world’s coral reefs into bioclimatic units (BCU) of 500 square kilometers (190 squared miles). They used over 170 metrics in five categories to classify each coral reef’s odds of surviving (including risks from invasive species, temperature and ocean acidification). Then they created estimates for the future of each BCU. They captured different possibilities. 

The team applied MPT to identify corals with the highest conservation potential. The market theory is based on the idea that you have stocks that are high risk and high reward, and stocks that are low risk and low reward — and you want to balance your portfolio to include both in different proportions, based on your tolerance to risk.

Researchers also applied the idea to coral reefs. They found the 50 coral reefs most able to withstand climate change. They recommended using these reefs as arks to repopulate other corals. They identified reefs from all over the globe, including those in the Pacific Islands, South America and Australia. The list includes parts of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the “coral triangle” in the Pacific but also excluded ecologically relevant areas, such as Central America’s Barrier Reef. 

For the researchers, while widespread loss and degradation of corals are soon expected because of climate change — it’s not a matter of ‘if’, it’s a matter of ‘when’. There are still some things we can do. The use of emerging technologies and strategic management of threats offer opportunities to improve coral conservation. But, ultimately, our ability to save them depends on our ability reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

The study was published by the journal Conservation Letters. 


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