Currents, oceanographic fronts and eddies swirl around the north-western coast of Madagascar, pushing ocean waters through an intricate pattern of islands, shallow bays and deep channels. As an established hotspot of biodiversity in the Western Indian Ocean, Madagascar’s coral reefs are home to the second highest number of reef-building corals and fish species in the world. Rolling backward into the water, scientists plunge into the country’s first community-led marine protected areas, where schools of colourful fishes dart into the safety of fields of delicate table corals.
In 1998, an El Niño event and marine heat wave led to widespread coral bleaching here in north-western Madagascar and around the world, killing about one-sixth of the planet’s corals. Today, the reefs off Madagascar’s north-western coast have made a remarkable recovery. They are protected not only by laws for marine protection, but also potentially by the ocean itself, as upwelling from the deep Mozambique Channel brings cooler water to heat-sensitive corals.
This means that the reefs of north-western Madagascar may be a sanctuary area for coral that escapes the worst impacts of climate change – in other words, a climate refuge. They may also give us a glimpse into some stories of hope for future marine protected areas in a rapidly changing world.
Since the late 1960s, marine protected areas have been an important strategy for ocean conservation and ecosystem-based fisheries management. Today they face a number of threats: the warming and acidification of the oceans, the emerging development of underwater oil and gas exploitation, illegal fishing and the rising demand for shark fins and manta ray gill plates, to name a few. Thousands of species of whales, sharks, rays and fish remain largely unprotected; a recent study found that 97% of marine species have less than 10% of their range represented in a marine protected area.