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Australian Scientists Warn Asian, Indian Ocean Reefs Dying

An environmental activist surveys coral reefs off Aceh Besar, Aceh province, Indonesia. Coral that survived the 2004 tsunami is now dying at one of the fastest rates ever recorded because of a dramatic rise in water temperatures off northwestern Indonesia

Australian researchers say that coral reefs in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean are dying from the worst bleaching effect in more than a decade. They say man-made pollution is partly to blame and have renewed their calls for governments to do more to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases that many scientists believe cause warmer temperatures.

Scientists at Australia's Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, which is based at James Cook University in Queensland, report that vast areas of coral have been killed by what is known as bleaching.

The bleaching was triggered by a large pool of warm water that swept into the Indian Ocean in May. The warmer conditions cause the corals to shed the algae that nourish them. If this vital source of food is not regained, the coral starves to death.

The researchers say bleaching has damaged reefs from Indonesia to the Seychelles, and has also affected coral in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

The result could be the loss of species of fish and coral, which would devastate fishing and tourism industries.

Andrew Baird, a researcher at James Cook University in Townsville, says the Aceh region of Indonesia has been worst hit and that fishermen there face ruin. "They have been managing their reefs in some areas very successfully, keeping the corals healthy and keeping fish yields reasonable. The tragedy is that this event is on such a scale, these warming waters are so huge and there is very little that the Achenese fishermen can do about that. Their carbon footprint is tiny and I think again that stresses the necessity for governments like Australia to move quickly to curb our emissions," Baird states.

Coral reefs are home to thousands of marine species, which in turn feed other, larger fish.

The last major coral bleaching occurred in 1998 when about 16 percent of the world's reefs were seriously degraded. Australian scientists warn that this year's devastation could be even worse and say man-made pollution is partly to blame.

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide from burning fuels such as oil, are thought to contribute to global warming.

Baird says the warmer ocean temperatures are "almost certainly a consequence of global warming."

The research team says it is too early to know if Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest living structure, will be damaged. There is an expectation that bleaching will affect reefs in the Andaman Sea, west of Thailand, and those in the central Pacific Ocean.