The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to help protect the world's endangered coral reefs. The measure would provide debt relief to developing countries that protect their coral reefs from continuing human encroachment. The bill is an example of the growing awareness among U.S. policy makers of the need to conserve this natural resource.

Scientific evidence indicates that coral reefs are deteriorating rapidly around the world. By the year 2000, more than one-fourth were lost as the result of human activities and climate change. Symptoms of the problem include the disappearance of hard corals, increased algae, and a dramatic increase in bleaching and disease.

"Coral reefs have undergone a tremendous demise during the last 20 years," says marine scientist Robert Halley of the U.S. Geological Survey. He spoke at a recent meeting to promote coral reef awareness, organized by concerned members of the House of Representatives. "Coral reefs were extremely robust in the 1960s and 1970s and had an amazing ability to heal themselves and to grow and prosper," he said. "That has changed as a result of coastal sedimentation, global warming, coral bleaching, over fishing."

The legislation before Congress addresses the problem in the tropics, which are home to most of the world's coral reefs. Explorer and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau says that, like so many other natural habitats, coral reefs are considered an exploitable economic resource.

"Eighty-five percent or more are found in developing countries," he said. "These people are desperate and what they do is look for resources, which they are going to find right there in their back yard to feed their kids today."

But Mr. Cousteau points out that preserving coral reefs offers greater economic benefits in the long run. They provide shelter and food for over one-fourth of all marine life, including many species that coastal dwellers depend upon for their livelihoods. They are also a source of compounds for drugs and reefs are protective barriers for coastlines.

"Think about the Bahamas, for example, which has zero altitude," Mr. Cousteau said. "Without a coral reef, they would be washed away in no time by the first hurricane. So, many of these nations are protected by these coral reefs."

The legislation in Congress would authorize the U.S. government to reduce or cancel loans to developing nations if they conserve their coral reefs and other coastal resources.

The House of Representatives passed the measure in October, but it still awaits action in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If the measure does not become law by the time Congress finishes its session later this year, the bill will die.

Members of the House Oceans Caucus are eager for enactment of such legislation. Congressman Sam Farr of California says the group was formed in 1998 to be a voice in Congress on diverse ocean issues and now has more than 50 lawmakers from both major political parties.

"You have an awful lot of members of Congress who are getting involved in oceans issues who have no shoreline in their district, but they are really concerned about the health of this planet," he said. "We have passed several bills in Congress over the last four years, and we are on the warpath."

At the same time the House Oceans Caucus formed, the Clinton administration created a task force to coordinate government agencies with responsibilities for protecting U.S. coral reefs. Two years ago, President Clinton signed legislation establishing the U.S. Commission on Oceans Policy to recommend a coordinated, comprehensive national oceans program.

Robert Halley of the U.S. Geological Survey sees these as hopeful steps by which the United States can set an example for reversing the decline in the world's coral reefs.

"The good news part of this scenario is that corals do have this innate ability to recover and I am confident that in a decade or two or three, we can turn the whole thing around," he said.