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Report Says Coral Reefs Badly Deteriorating, But Recovery Possible

More than two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs are on the verge of collapse or have already been destroyed...but a few countries are working to limit further damage. That is the conclusion of a new report from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network released December 6.

“We know what the problems are,” says Clive Wilkinson, the lead author of the report. “We know how to fix them. We just have to do it."

Coral reefs are vital to life on earth. Hundreds of millions of people depend on these vast underwater ecosystems for food and jobs. Reefs protect our coastlines from erosion, and are home to one quarter of all known marine species. The new report, compiled by 240 scientists from 96 countries, measures an 11percent decline in coral reefs since the last survey two years ago.

The problems are said to be everywhere - from the Persian Gulf, where 65% of the reefs have been destroyed…to oceans in South and Southeast Asia, which have lost nearly half their reef cover. Damage in the Caribbean is even worse. "A recent analysis,” notes Mr. Wilkinson, “said that there has been an 80 percent drop in coral reef cover in many Caribbean reefs from bleaching disease, hurricanes, chronic overfishing, etc."

In 1998, a once-every-1,000-year El Nino-related weather event destroyed 16% of all reefs worldwide. The warmer ocean temperatures caused corals to eject vital plant tissues and die, a process called bleaching. The Monitoring Network report says bleaching could occur more frequently in the future, due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases in the atmosphere.

Report author Clive Wilkinson says shorter-term stresses include disease, invasive species, poor land use, agricultural and industrial runoff, and coastal development. "People are now wanting to build airports on coral reefs to attract tourists to come and see coral reefs," he says. "I scratch my head and say I really don't understand."

The report says governments, international agencies, environmental groups and lending institutions must work together to protect coral reefs. Already, France and Sweden have made major commitments.

The United States is also backing protection efforts. "In our coral reef conservation program, we have awarded nearly $10 million in grants to support coral reef science and management in the United States and internationally," says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) head Conrad C. Lautenbacher. "We have been working on an accelerated process in the last year or two to create a national marine sanctuary, which encompasses all of the northwest Hawaiian Islands, which would preserve the largest extra-tropical reef system in the world."

Protection is a key to reef survival. Report author Clive Wilkinson says Australia has taken the lead by greatly expanding protected areas around the Great Barrier Reef. "They have upped from 5 percent protection to 33 percent,” he says, “and that has set the benchmark for the rest of the world. That was because they saw a series of declines in turtles, fishing was increasing, the sediment runoff was increasing. So they basically drew the line in the sand and said, 'we need more protection.'"

The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network supports protected no-take areas, which have been shown to actually increase fishing yields. Other recommendations in the report include reducing pollution and barring dynamite fishing. Clive Wilkinson calls the study a guide for decision makers to help reverse current trends. He says reefs can recover, but only with a greater hands-on commitment by governments worldwide.