About 75 percent of the world's coral reefs are currently threatened by human activities and ecological disruptions, according to a new study released last week by a network of more than 24 environmental organizations. The report was issued simultaneously in a number of locations around the world.
The new study called Reefs at Risk Revisited is an update of a report first issued in 1998. It makes use of newly-available data and higher-resolution satellite mapping technology. And for the first time, it considers the impact of climate change along with other factors, on these fragile marine organisms.
Its somber assessment: if the international community does not do anything now to save the coral reefs and their rich ecosystems, more than 90 percent of the world's reefs will be threatened by 2030 and nearly all of them could be at risk in less than 40 years.
"Approximately 75 percent of the world's coral reefs are currently threatened by a combination of local and global pressures," said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "If the current trends persist, the projection for this report tells us that 20 years from now, roughly half the reefs globally will experience thermo stress sufficient to induce severe bleaching in most years. Within the next 50 years this percentage is expected to grow more than 95 per cent."
And according to Nancy Knowlton, of the Smithsonian Institution, this could have a major impact on sea life.
"It's been estimated that about one fourth maybe as much as one third of all species that live in the ocean are associated with coral reefs," said Knowlton. "Perhaps it is not too surprising to know in a recent analysis suggesting that one third of all coral species are actually at risk of extinction. This makes coral the most endangered animal on the planet, even more endangered than frogs."
Coral reefs are essential for coastal protection, and for the food security and economic wellbeing of millions of people around the world. They are an important source of protein, a potential source of pharmaceuticals, and as Lauretta Burke of the World Resources Institute points out, a valuable tourist attraction.
"Tourism is an important economic contributor in over 95 countries and territories around the world, it contributes over 20 percent of GDP in over 20 countries," noted Burke.
Burke was one of the lead authors of the study. She says it found 275 million people are dependent on the resources from coral reefs, mostly in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
The study includes detailed data on the most serious global threats to the oceans: among them, overfishing, climate change and higher acidity levels caused by carbon dioxide emissions.
Other threats, especially at the local level, include the use of explosives for fishing as well as the runoff of sediments, excess nutrients, toxic materials and other pollution.
"Overfishing is the most widespread threat affecting about 55 percent of the world's coral reefs," added Burke. "The threat is particularly high in Southeast Asia. Watershed coastal pollution and coastal development affects roughly a quarter of the coral reefs."
Burke said while the reefs around Australia are the best preserved, those in Southeast Asia are the most threatened, with 90 per cent of them at risk, largely because of overfishing.
The study's authors say they hope the report communicates what is at stake: that coral reefs are critically important, and that better management practices and policies must be implemented to reduce the threats to these valuable ecosystems.