Coral relief

An Edinburgh student has teamed up with University supporters to discover how to save a magnificent coral site from destruction.

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coral reef

They are a spectacular part of the eastern Pacific’s most scenic location – a setting as rugged as it is remote – yet theirs is a fragile beauty.

The corals that surround the magnificent Revillagigedo Islands – dubbed Mexico’s Little Galápagos because of their amazing diversity – are at risk from warming seas in a changing climate.

Now a rearguard action has begun, thanks to a partnership between Pew Charitable Trust and marine scientists at Edinburgh, supported by friends of the University.

Researchers in the School of GeoSciences had been focusing on the islands long before UNESCO designated them a World Heritage Site last year.

For the past two decades, Edinburgh’s marine scientists have been working with international agencies to help establish marine protected areas worldwide.

It is not hard to see why this remarkable archipelago, 340 miles south-west of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, merits attention. Despite harsh conditions, the islands harbour the most diverse fish and coral community in the Mexican Pacific.

Although reef development is limited there, spectacular examples can be found in sheltered bays inaccessible to visitors for about half the year.

 

Threats to reefs such as these are many and varied – pollution, shipping and fishing among them – and concerns are growing.

Those fears are well founded. Coral enables diverse forms of marine life to thrive in reef structures that offer protection from predators and safe spaces to reproduce.

Each of the four Revillagigedo Islands has a six-mile marine protection zone but the waters beyond these are vulnerable to excessive fishing, and the threat of so-called bleaching. Bleaching occurs when coral reacts to a rise in temperature, and sheds an algae called zooxanthellae that normally lives in its tissue. Without the algae, the coral turns white and, if bleaching is severe, dies.

My study was full of surprises. Reefs in that part of the world are very different to those I’d studied before, so that took lots of reading and listening to people.

Amber Carter
Msc Marine Systems And Policies

Helping to thwart this growing threat to the islands is Amber Carter, who has just completed an MSc in Marine Systems and Policies at Edinburgh.

For Amber, who is from Oxfordshire, Edinburgh was a good choice: “My first degree, which was in environmental science and business management, gave me a good scientific base; my Masters at Edinburgh allowed me to develop this while also learning about policy.”

“There’s a need for people who understand science but can also communicate it to government and the wider public so that research actually makes a difference.”

Amber worked intensely to assess whether the archipelago has the potential to become a climate refugium – a haven in which corals can survive rising temperatures better than they would in surrounding parts of the ocean.

Funding from the Pew Charitable Trust made it possible for Amber to gather crucial knowledge and data in Mexico. There, she worked with Pelagios Kakunjá, a non-profit body that tracks migratory marine species in the Mexican Pacific.

“My study was full of surprises. Reefs in that part of the world are very different to those I’d studied before, so that took lots of reading and listening to people.

“It has been a learning curve, but I have really enjoyed it. I think it’s important to highlight the possibility of these corals surviving climate change.”

Amber presented her findings at the International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Chile and now her dissertation will inform a policy document being drawn up by the Pew Charitable Trust. Her findings, well received by congress delegates, could ultimately help to influence whether the islands’ six-mile protection zone can be extended.

For Amber, it has offered a glimpse of a possible future: “I’d like to keep working with an organisation such as the Pew Charitable Trust. I love getting involved in that area where science and policy meet, and being part of a process that can impact on the protection of our oceans.”

There’s a need for people who understand science but can also communicate it to government and the wider public so that research actually makes a difference.

Amber Carter