Reefs in severe decline

Only 25 per cent of coral reefs in the Caribbean are ‘faring well’, largely because of climate change and other human induced stresses, a large scale United States Government study has found.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report – the most comprehensive ever conducted by the agency – also found that US coral reef ecosystems are under unprecedented strain, with half described as being in a ‘poor’ of ‘fair’ condition.

Coral reefs in the Pacific region, by contrast, seem to be faring better, with 69 per cent in good or excellent condition, the report found.

‘This is absolutely a call to action,’ said Kacky Andrews, director of the NOAA Coral Program in a press release.

Since a 2005 coral bleaching epidemic that affected almost all of the Caribbean, researchers observed coral mortality of between 50 and 90 per cent in parts of the region, the report said.

The findings of the study were presented Tuesday to one of the largest international gatherings on coral reefs ever held. More than 2,500 marine scientists, government officials and conservations are attending the International Coral Reef Symposium, being held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, until Friday.

In a press release, NOAA said the US coral reef ecosystems, particularly those adjacent to populated areas, continue to face intense human-derived threats from coastal development, fishing, sedimentation and recreational use.

‘Even the most remote reefs are subject to threats such as marine debris, illegal fishing and climate-related effects of coral bleaching, disease and ocean acidification,’ the agency warned.

It said coral reefs in the US had been declining for several decades. As an indicator of the ongoing decline, since its last report in 2005, two species of coral – elkhorn and staghorn corals – have become the first coral ever listed as endangered under the country’s Endangered Species Act.

NOAA scientists also warned of the risk posed to coastal areas from storm action if reefs continue to decline.

Following the tsunami that devastated parts of Asia and Africa on Boxing Day, 2004, the researchers observed: ‘Where reefs were in good condition and structurally intact, adjacent areas were spared the full force of the waves. Where reefs had deteriorated from dredging, blast fishing and other destructive activities, there was little reef to break the waves’ momentum, which hit nearby coasts with unabated force.’

The 569-page document details coral reef conditions around in the both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

‘The report shows that this is a global issue,’ said Tim Keeney, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere

The report concluded: ‘As the global population continues to increase and demographic shifts toward coastal areas persist, even greater pressures will be placed on near-shore resources to satisfy human desires for food, culture, tourism, recreation and profit.

‘Key issues related to usage and access to coral reef ecosystem resources are likely to intensify as conflicts over incompatible uses become more frequent,’ it said.

‘Looking ahead, decision makers must find a means to balance users’ demands with efforts to conserve the resources that remain.’

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