Client Report

Preserving Coral Reefs

How can we support the preservation of the world’s coral reefs?

The Kayes are a couple recently retired from university careers. They have a love of science and the outdoors, and are gravely concerned about the state of the world’s coral reefs, many of which they’ve visited. For the last several years, the couple have given to one California-based nonprofit that works on coral reef preservation. They wanted to know if this organization is their best option for making an impactful donation to halt the decline of the world’s coral reefs.

21 of the 29 reefs have suffered severe and/or repeated heat stress, leading to some of the worst coral bleaching ever seen.

Overview of the Issue

Overview of the Issue

This past June, UNESCO World Heritage released its first global scientific assessment of the impact of climate change on all 29 World Heritage coral reefs. Sadly, the researchers found that 21 of the 29 reefs have suffered severe and/or repeated heat stress, leading to some of the worst coral bleaching ever seen.

Twenty five percent of the world’s reefs are considered damaged beyond repair, while another two thirds are endangered, according to this report. Those in danger include the iconic Great Barrier Reef, the Gulf of California and the reefs of the Galapagos Islands.

Why Coral Reefs Are Dying

  • The major threats to coral reefs include:
    • Climate change. This is the largest threat coral reefs face. As ocean waters warm, coral undergoes stress, leading to the bleaching, or dying of the coral.
    • Destructive fishing practices. These include overfishing, the use of explosives and even just dragging anchors on the fragile coral structures.
    • Pollution. Both land and water-based pollution damage corals and contribute to the overall poor-health of the oceans, making them less resilient in the face of climate change.
    • Destructive construction practices. Some coral reefs have so little governmental protection that landowners have been allowed to build on top or very near the reefs.


Major Approaches to Coral Reef Preservation

Major Approaches to Coral Reef Preservation

As with any complex issue, coral reef preservation is being approached by nonprofits, governments and academic institutions from several angles. These tactics include:

  1. Scientific research.

Central to the solution to coral reef preservation is scientific research. Researchers monitor and assess the health of the reef and can prioritize areas for intervention. However, scientific research is often underfunded as governments in particular don’t always see it as actively addressing the problem.

There are a number of universities and research bodies doing vital research to monitor and document the health of coral reefs around the world. Most research is regionally based and welcomes additional funding. Some institutions doing especially important work on local coral reefs include:

  • The ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia. While they certainly research and work to protect the Great Barrier Reef, the ARC Center is also a respected coordinator of the work of marine scientists working on coral reefs around the world.
  • Costal Oceans Research and Development—Indian Ocean (CORDIO). This is an organization based in Mombasa, Kenya. Importantly, CORDIO is an established, research-based nonprofit that works solely in the Indian Ocean. This means that staff are locals who not only know the fish and other marine wildlife they work with, but they are also from the communities that benefit from healthy reefs. CORDIO offers internships to local students and is focused on “mitigating the effects of climate change by improving evidence-based decision making to manage ecosystems sustainably.”
  1. The establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Perhaps the most common way governments go about trying to protect coral reefs is by declaring them Marine Sanctuaries or Marine Protected Areas (MPA). The problem is that a great number of these MPA’s become what’s called ‘paper tigers,’ meaning they are protected areas in name only and enjoy little or no oversight or law enforcement protection.

However, there are several organisations working to enforce regulations over MPAs and even monitor them themselves.

Oracabessa Foundation. This organization was recommended by a contact at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). It is a local foundation, established for the development and protection of the town of Oracabessa, Jamaica. A major benefactor is in fact Bob Marley’s former manager.

What is important about Oracabessa, is that it works on local economic development and education in addition to protecting costal waters, including a local fish sanctuary. The area is closed to fishing and has seen an impressive rise in the number of fish and corals since the protection was established.

Bluefields Bay. This is another Jamaican community-based organization. The sanctuary is run by Bluefield’s Bay Fishermans Friendly Society, which was established in 2004 following Hurricane Ivan and rose out of the need of the local community (including many fishermen) to recover from the effects of the disaster. The Society invests in community initiatives such as housing, construction of new boats and enforcement and monitoring of the costal waters. They are currently hoping to replace all local fishing nets with a wider mesh version that doesn’t cause undue harm to the wildlife.

Blue Ventures. This organization is based in London, but works with marine protected areas particularly in southern Africa. Blue Ventures is committed to the model of locally managed marine protected areas, and they try to transfer lessons learned to other areas. Interestingly, Blue Ventures is heavily funded by foundations and receives very little income from private donations. It’s won a lot of awards for its approach, though, and it is clearly interested in scaling up, given enough funding.

  1. Stakeholder engagement and coordination.

Important to any issue that affects a global population, is international cooperation and coordination. There are quite a few bodies—both nonprofit and governmental—that seek to share best practices, further research and advocate for coral reefs on a global level. Some of these include:

The Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL). I know that you’ve supported this well-regarded organization in the past. I contacted CORAL to ask them a bit more about their work and they were very helpful. They definitely see themselves as “conveners, collaborators and educators” although they do have local staff and contractors around the world working on reef conservation and protection, primarily through marine protected areas.

What concerns me slightly about CORAL is that it is based in Oakland, CA, and its leadership is decidedly American. They are clearly doing important work, but I’m not sure why they need to be based in one of the most expensive cities in the country. While alliance-building work is critical to global issues like coral reef preservation, it’s also really tough to evaluate. Would coordination between parties working on coral conservation have happened without CORAL? How much value are they really adding from such a distance, and does it justify California salaries and resources?

Again, I can see no reason not to support CORAL, but at least a portion of your donation might be more effectively put to use elsewhere.

  1. Slowing climate change.

This is of course the elephant in the room when it comes to coral reef conservation. Protecting coral reefs from destructive fishing practices and building the resilience of local communities can only go so far in protecting fragile reefs. It’s the rising temperature of the water that is doing the most damage.

Certainly there are any number of organizations around the world working on climate change. A few are working on it while holding up the damage done to coral reefs as evidence. The Australian Marine Conservation Society is one with an especially good reputation.

Suggested Organizations to Support

Suggested Organizations to Support

My recommendation is to consider a gift to an organization or organizations working in either scientific research or the establishment and monitoring of locally managed marine protected areas. Organizations that I think would put your gift to particularly good use include:

Costal Oceans Research and Development—Indian Ocean.

Costal Oceans Research and Development–Indian Ocean. CORDIO is currently funded through grants from mostly UN or European development agencies, but they are especially keen to begin attracting donations from individuals. I asked them what they’d do with additional funding, and their answer focused on internal and external opportunities. Internally, they’d direct more money toward attracting and retaining top-quality local researchers. At this time, their co-director says CORDIO simply can’t compete with the private sector for these talents (a common frustration of small nonprofits).

Externally, CORDIO is eager to repeat surveys done on local coral and fish populations in order to inform preservation policies. Additional funding would likely go to this as well as developing “climate smart” fishery approaches given the changing climate of the Indian Ocean.

Oracabessa Foundation or Bluefields Bay.

Oracabessa Foundation or Bluefields Bay Fisherman’s Friendly Society. These are both locally run organizations whose work is guided by experts in marine science . Both work in Jamaica, a country with low growth and high unemployment (youth unemployment was at 28% in 2016). Both organizations therefore take a holistic approach to reef conservation by working to protect the waterways as well as residents’ livelihoods, which is essential if conservation is going to be successful in the long term.


It’s important to note that while a gift to most of these organizations would likely be U.S. tax deductible, it’s not a given. If this is important to you, you’ll need to ask both the organization and your accountant in advance. Usually the nonprofit will need to provide a letter showing its tax status, but some international nonprofits just aren’t recognized by U.S. tax code. So best double check before giving.