Red Sea, White Coral?

02 September 2009 | News story

What is the potential effect of climate change on Red Sea coral reefs and tourism in Egypt? Kuoni, HEPCA, IUCN and local tour operators are working in partnership to address this issue.

The Red Sea hosts one of the most intricate and biologically diverse coral reef systems in the world. The elevated salinity levels and high seasonal temperature fluctuations that occur in the Red Sea means that the reefs have evolved under extreme conditions. Nevertheless, almost every reef system in the world has been affected by coral bleaching, which has increased dramatically in its frequency and distribution over the past two decades as a result of climate change and other human impacts. Some climate change models have predicted 95% of the world's coral reefs may be lost by the end of this century. This threatened global reef system sustains the livelihoods of not only the tourism and fishing industries, but all coastal communities that depend on it for sustenance and extreme weather protection.

Over the past two decades, mass coral bleaching has increased dramatically in terms of frequency and distribution as a result of climate change and other human impacts; almost every reef system in the world has been affected. Some climate change models have predicted up to 95% of the world's coral reefs may be lost by the end of this century. This threatened global reef system sustains the livelihood of not only the tourism and fishing industries, but all coastal communities that depend on it for sustenance and extreme weather protection.

Coral bleaching occurs when the density of the photosynthetic algae in the coral (called zooxanthellae and give the host coral its vivid color) declines leaving the coral's white calcium carbonate exoskeleton visible through the transparent flesh. The decline in zooxanthellae concentrations is caused by stress from a number of factors, including: temperature changes, increased exposure to solar radiation, changes in the chemical or biological composition of the water, sedimentation and subaerial exposure. The coral may recover in a matter of weeks depending on the duration and intensity of the stress factor or die leaving behind the stone-like skeleton.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) organized two workshops to help address the potential impact of coral bleaching, sponsored by Kuoni's corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. The first workshop focused on the tourism industry of the Egyptian Red Sea coast and was aimed at understanding vulnerabilities of the tourism sector to climate change impacts and how best to adapt to potential future changes in the coral reef. The second training workshop focused on Coral Reef Managers and how to assist them in responding to climate change impacts. It was delivered to national park rangers from the Northern Red Sea Islands Protected Area, the Wadi El Gemal Protected Area, and the Elba Protected Area in addition to several members of the tourism and the diving industry.

The workshop was delivered by a team of experts that have conducted pioneering research and management on the impact of climate change on coral reefs and the associated tourism industry included Mr. Matthias Leisinger, Head of Kuoni’s Corporate Responsibility; Dr. Paul Marshall, Director of the Climate Change Program of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; Dr. Ameer Abdulla, Senior Specialist and Group Leader with the IUCN's Global Marine Program; Dr. Tony Rouphael, a Red Sea specialist and member of the IUCN’s Commission on Protected Areas; Dr. Nadine Marshall, a social scientist with IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, who specializes in enhancing community resilience to environmental and policy change and uncertainty; and Mr. Tony Charters, Chairman of Ecotourism Australia.

It is critical to understand the potential impacts of climate change in the Red Sea. Raising awareness of this threat among local tour operators and resource managers is crucial to plan actions that can potentially mitigate future impacts to coral reefs and marine-based tourism. Consequently, a unique partnership has been created in Egypt in March 2009. Local tour operators, IUCN, HEPCA and Kuoni have come together to assess the vulnerability of the tourism industry to climate change. Furthermore, this partnership will train and empower local capacity to monitor and manage coral reefs in the face of climate change. Thirdly, the partners will undertake an environmental education and public awareness campaign to communicate the potential impacts of anthropogenic activities on marine habitats (diving impacts, overfishing, pollution and climate change).

Sponsored by Kuoni's corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, IUCN and HEPCA organized two workshops in June to help address the potential impacts of coral bleaching and climate change on coral reefs and tourism dependant industries. The first scoping workshop focused on the tourism industry of the Egyptian Red Sea coast and was aimed at understanding vulnerabilities of the Tourism sector to climate change impacts and how best to adapt to potential future changes in the coral reef. The second training workshop was focused on Coral Reef Managers and assisting them to responding to climate change impacts on the coral reefs they manage. It was delivered to national park rangers from the Northern Red Sea Islands Protected Area, the Wadi El Gemal Protected Area, and the Elba Protected Area in addition to active members of the tourism and diving industry.

The interdisciplinary workshops tackled climate change, a global but often theoretical concept to many people, with an applied and hands-on approach. The workshops addressed the causes of coral bleaching; the political implications of and social vulnerabilities to climate change impacts; and constraints to adaptation. It also provided an overview of management techniques and response plans. The workshop focused on practical measures that can be implemented to make both the reef and local communities more resilient to climate change. The workshop program included a field trip to monitor bleaching and assess the potential resilience of two reefs, an exercise presenting a methodology to train members of the tourism community and park managers to collect valuable data on a large scale. This community monitoring program would improve understanding of the resilience of Egyptian Red Sea reefs and enhance national and regional management strategies.

A valuable outcome of the event was a promising plan for collaboration between National Park rangers and members of the tourism industry in developing a response plan to mass coral bleaching events. Both parties recognized that synergizing efforts is vital for mitigating and managing the socio-ecological impacts of coral bleaching on both the reef and dependant communities. Kuoni, HEPCA, and IUCN look forward to implementing more activities to enhance reef stewardship with all stakeholders associated with Egyptian Reefs.

If you would like more information please contact Dr. Ameer Abdulla, IUCN Global Marine Program: ameer.abdulla@iucn.org