chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Coral Reefs and Climate Change: A Legal Solution to Preserving Global Ecosystems

Sarah Brusseau


  • Analyzes how the death of coral reefs will result in job loss, the destruction of crucial ecosystems, and limited food supply to over half a billion people worldwide.
  • Discusses current coral reef “protections.”
  • Provides immediate actions countries can take to protect coral reefs.
Coral Reefs and Climate Change: A Legal Solution to Preserving Global Ecosystems
Lea McQuillan via Getty Images

Coral reefs are dying at a rapid pace. In fact, half of the world’s corals are gone. The death of these biologically diverse underwater structures will result in job loss, the destruction of crucial ecosystems, and limited food supply to over half a billion people worldwide. Despite the essential benefits coral reefs bring, reefs are largely unprotected and unregulated at both the international and domestic levels. The United States has established programs and task forces to study the decline of coral reefs (i.e., the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force), but rarely has Congress passed legislation to address the protection of coral reefs.Tackling the issue of coral reef mortality requires multiple routes. First, climate change must be mitigated to prevent the Earth’s temperature rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; warmer waters lead to ocean acidification and coral bleaching. Second, laws and policies must be enacted at both the international and country level to protect coral reefs.. 

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are essential to both human and animal life. Coral ecosystems are a source of food for millions of people and provide local jobs in fishing, recreation, and tourism. Additionally, reef systems protect coastlines from storms and erosion. As a “hotspot of marine biodiversity” coral reefs support over 4,000 species of fish and hundreds of other species, and are important spawning and nursery grounds for marine animals. Without healthy and thriving coral reef systems, entire marine ecosystems will collapse and humans, especially those in small island developing states, will suffer.

Human activities are primarily responsible for coral reef death, with the greatest impact coming from the warming of the oceans due to climate change. Warming oceans cause coral bleaching, a process where corals become too stressed to survive. If the temperature does not decrease the corals will continue to expel algae and eventually starve and die. Additionally, the physical destruction of corals and overfishing contribute to the collapse of coral colonies. The equipment fishers use, such as nets and explosive devices, can shatter coral colonies and kill coral tissues. Overfishing can lead to fish population extinction and unbalanced coral reef ecosystems.

Current Coral Reef “Protections”

Despite coral reefs being essential to human survival, there are no international treaties in place for the sole purpose of protecting coral reefs. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is perhaps the closest the international community has come to a treaty regulating the ocean; other conventions have provided additional guidance on how to protect coral reefs.

UNCLOS covers rights and obligations regarding use and protection of oceans and marine natural resources. Article 192 of UNCLOS establishes the obligation of nations to “protect and preserve the marine environment.” UNCLOS emphasizes the ocean is not an inexhaustible commodity and therefore nations must approach marine resources as precious and vulnerable. UNCLOS states that “living resources do not belong to the common heritage of man.” Coral reefs are not afforded international protection under UNCLOS because the majority of reef systems are not within international waters, but rather within the jurisdiction of coastal states. Additionally, some nations consider UNCLOS international customary law, while others do not. It appears the effort to protect coral reefs beginning in the 1990s never truly came to fruition.

The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) affirmed the importance of protecting marine resources and provided the background for the creation of several conventions and programs to afford coral reefs protections. Agenda 21 established the framework for the creation of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI). The ICRI implements annual objectives and provides a framework for its members to protect coral reefs at the global, national, and regional levels. The measures include improving sustainable management practices, establishing networks to share information and knowledge, and promoting a global coral reef monitoring system. While the informal partnership of the ICRI provides necessary education and guidelines, not even half of the world’s countries are members. The ICRI does not provide actual, attainable goals for its members to meet, nor does it provide incentives to reach the unidentified goals.

In addition to Agenda 21, UNCED developed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). CBD is a multilateral, framework treaty with the primary goal being to conserve biological diversity. CBD contains strategies and conservation techniques for nations to implement to protect their biodiversity, such as established marine protected areas (MPAs). The United States is one of four member states of the United Nations that has not ratified the CBD; however, the U.S. Congress has used the ideas and language of the CBD in efforts to protect coral reef systems in the United States’ jurisdiction.

The United States, however, did ratify the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) in 1973. The treaty is an excellent regulatory tool for protecting corals, namely 22 coral species are listed as threatened and three coral species are listed as endangered; it should be noted that CITES fails to include any coral fish or marine mammal species.

The United States has provided some protections for coral reefs through the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Additionally, President Bill Clinton established the United States Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF) in 1998 through Executive Order 13089; the task force claims to address threats to coral reefs off the U.S. coast. However, the United States follows a similar approach to the international models discussed above: suggest and provide guidelines, and encourage the spread of information and sustainable development, and rarely enforces treaty provisions. The CWA is heavily enforced, but the Act’s main goal is to prevent dumping of sewage and pollutants in the water, not to protect coral ecosystems. The ESA only protects Florida coral reefs and established marine protected area (MPA) zones, which are often within the route of international cargo ships that can physically damage corals. The United States has not passed a much-needed “Coral Reef Protection Act.”

Recommended Steps

A clear and simple way to protect coral reefs is to take action to address climate change. While leaders worldwide are beginning to do this through the Paris Agreement and national initiatives, the following are additional immediate actions countries can take to protect coral reefs.

  1. Make the ICRI a formal, binding treaty with clearly defined attainable goals.

    The ICRI could be established as the unifying global partnership to combat coral reef elimination. The current framework of the ICRI is solid and can be modified to become a formal, binding treaty. The ICRI currently attempts to implement treaties, such as CITES and the CBD’s 10-year strategic plan, and promotes information and knowledge about coral reef management worldwide. A rotating secretariat is hosted by member nations, general meetings are held annually, and relevant coral reef data is provided by individual nations to better inform the ICRI to make global suggestions.

    To make the ICRI a formal, binding treaty, member states would sign and ratify the partnership agreement. A key aspect of the new ICRI is one guiding framework for all nations to follow for managing coral reef protections. Member states of the ICRI will agree to follow the framework established by the ICRI, as opposed to individually controlling coral reef laws and policies. Although joining the international partnership is voluntary, nations are encouraged to join and adopt the policies and regulations.
  2. Regulate fishing methods.

    Fishing nets, explosive devices, and cyanide are occasionally used by fishermen and should be prohibited in all coral reef zones. These fishing regulations will not cost money to implement. However, there may be initial backlash from those who depend on the reef for food and business. Governments should be prepared to assist fishers in the short-term to ensure long-term sustainability of fish populations.
  3. Additional no-take zones should be created and enforced.

    Although 20 percent of corals are in MPAs, only 0.1 percent are protected by no-take rules. With 500 million people relying on coral reefs for food, it is reasonable and practical to only require coral ecosystems experiencing significant decline in fish and marine animal populations into no-take zones. Additional MPAs could also be enforced for coral ecosystems that are currently experiencing, or have recently experienced, bleaching. Results should be studied, and no-take restrictions be lifted if the coral ecosystem demonstrates significant rejuvenation.


Coral reefs are essential to human survival. The biodiversity, food, income, and protection derived from an animal covering less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface is astounding. In order to preserve the life and benefits provided by corals, the ratification of a formal ICRI treaty and enforcement of no-take zones and stricter fishing regulations should be implemented. Nations must can come together, set realistic and attainable goals to protect and preserve the reefs, and continue to educate people on the importance of coral reef systems.