Australia's Chief Scientist

Science for sustainable reefs

Pollution, overfishing, coastal development and climate change are putting the world’s coral reefs under increasing pressure. With millions of people relying on them, how can science help make our reefs sustainable?

A healthy coral reef is a thing of beauty and a wonder to behold. Coral reefs make a great holiday destination but for many of the world’s people they are so much more. Approximately 500 million people depend on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, building materials and income from tourism. But this precious resource is under growing pressure and in serious decline.


19 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have effectively been lost and a further 15 per cent are seriously threatened with loss within the next 10 to 20 years. In some regions the losses are significantly higher.

And what is threatening our coral reefs? Basically it’s us and our activities. Overfishing, pollution, disease and habitat destruction are some of the direct threats, but overarching and interacting with these are a suite of more serious problems connected with climate change – warming oceans, ocean acidification and rising sea levels.

However, it’s not all bad news, especially in the short term. As scientists investigate how coral reefs bounce back after major disturbances (such as storms) they’re discovering that healthy coral reefs can have enormous resilience. While healthy, biodiverse reefs can be resilient to disturbances such as warmer water, multiple threats to reefs decrease their ability to bounce back. Through effective management of reefs and their catchment areas and by establishing marine protected areas we can reduce the threats to the reef and help make them sustainable. However, in the longer term, the future of the Great Barrier Reef and other reefs of the world will depend on international initiatives to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

The future of the world’s coral reefs is looking grim on many fronts, and climate change will certainly redraw the coral distribution maps of the world. As this century unfolds, unless we curb our greenhouse gas emissions and promote resilience in our reefs, corals are going to deteriorate to the point where we could lose them altogether

More information on this topic is available at the Australian Academy of Science’s Nova: Science for curious minds. Student activities and useful resources are also available. 


This author of this article is Nova, a portal covering science for curious minds — the exciting, and often controversial, research that has the potential to revolutionise the world we live in.

Nova, developed by the Australian Academy of Science, is a website you can trust to provide accurate and up-to-date information on science, health, the environment, mathematics and technology. You can register free of charge on Nova’s home page to receive a regular newsletter.

Nova can be used by teachers planning lessons, students doing assignments, parents helping children with projects, librarians answering reference queries, journalists researching stories – and anyone who wants to keep up-to-date on science and technology.