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Atlas Shows Coral Reefs Shrinking Fast

The United Nations has just released the most comprehensive assessment ever of coral reefs around the world. The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, shows that the reefs are smaller than previously thought and are shrinking fast.

Coral reefs are home to the greatest diversity of plant and animal life found in any habitat, anywhere on the earth. But, while they are found in 101 countries and territories, the new Atlas shows coral reefs occupy a smaller part of the planet than previously thought, one tenth of one percent of the oceans. That's an area about half the size of France.

"This of course makes their importance even more crucial, disproportionately valuable as ecosystems," said Mark Spalding, Senior Marine Ecologist with the United Nations Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Center, the organization that produced the Atlas. He says reefs are a vital natural resource that support fisheries, protect coastal areas and provide economic sustenance to coastal communities.

He continued, "We've got literally hundreds and millions of people from some of the world's poorest countries depending on reefs as a source of food, employment and income. Those people need reefs, but as the coastal populations are growing those people are over using and badly hurting the reefs and badly hurting themselves and their communities and destroying the future."

The new Atlas finds that pollution, overfishing, poor agricultural practices, sediment from deforestation and irresponsible tourism are largely to blame.

Mark Spalding says climate change is also playing a role in the rapid decline of coral reefs around the globe. "In 1998 the world was swept over by one of the world's largest 'El Nino' events, and there is every reason to believe that the 'El Nino' event was exacerbated by climate change which has already taken place," he says. "It appears that coral reefs are the most sensitive of all ecosystems to even minor changes in temperature. And, in 1998 great [areas] of reef were decimated by warm temperatures, one or two degrees above the normal maximum."

Rosanne Skirble: "So, what recommendation would you have for someone who cares about these issues?

Mark Spaulding: "Educate yourself. Educate your community and communicate the message to others. We have to hit this at all sorts of levels. If you are a diver from a western nation then [you should] be concerned about not just about going on a good holiday, but [about] going somewhere that is not damaging the local reefs. If you are a local fisherman or a local politician try to find out more about these means of sustainable use of reefs which will lead to benefits, economic and social benefits in a very short term."

The World Atlas of Coral Reefs includes detailed maps of all the world's coral reef nations with the first ever estimates of reef area for individual countries. It has pictures of reefs, reef animals and images taken from space by NASA space shuttle astronauts.

Mark Spalding hopes the Atlas will have a broad range of uses. He said, "I hope that local populations, local communities might be able to use a book like this not only to learn about their own situation, but to learn about situations in other areas and perhaps learn from the successes and failures of other areas. I would apply almost the same set of ideas at a higher level to politicians, decision-makers and managers. They can use the Atlas as a tool to learn about management systems, to learn about the diversity and distribution of coral reefs and to learn from the successes and failures of other areas."

The Atlas also provides hundreds of maps of marine protected areas that incorporate coral reefs. Lead author Mark Spalding says in the places where sustainable management practices are enforced nations are reaping enormous benefits, not only for the ecosystems, but also for the local economy through tourism, marine recreation, export fisheries and emerging industries such as pharmaceuticals.