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#446276 - 09/10/12 01:40 PM Caribbean coral reefs face collapse
Marty Offline
Caribbean coral reefs are in danger of disappearing, depriving the world of one of its most beautiful and productive ecosystems

Caribbean coral reefs – which make up one of the world's most colourful, vivid and productive ecosystems – are on the verge of collapse, with less than 10% of the reef area showing live coral cover.

With so little growth left, the reefs are in danger of utter devastation unless urgent action is taken, conservationists warned. They said the drastic loss was the result of severe environmental problems, including over-exploitation, pollution from agricultural run-off and other sources, and climate change.

The decline of the reefs has been rapid: in the 1970s, more than 50% showed live coral cover, compared with 8% in the newly completed survey. The scientists who carried it out warned there was no sign of the rate of coral death slowing.

Coral reefs are a particularly valuable part of the marine ecosystem because they act as nurseries for younger fish, providing food sources and protection from predators until the fish have grown large enough to fend better for themselves. They are also a source of revenue from tourism and leisure.

Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of the global marine and polar programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which published the research, said: "The major causes of coral decline are well known and include overfishing, pollution, disease and bleaching caused by rising temperatures resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Looking forward, there is an urgent need to immediately and drastically reduce all human impacts [in the area] if coral reefs and the vitally important fisheries that depend on them are to survive in the decades to come."

Warnings over the poor state of the world's coral reefs have become more frequent in the past decades as pollution, increasing pressure on fish stocks, and the effects of global warming on the marine environment – in the form of higher sea temperatures and slightly elevated levels of acidity in the ocean – have taken their toll.

Last year, scientists estimated that 75% of the Caribbean's coral reefs were in danger, along with 95% of those in south-east Asia. That research, from the World Resources Institute, predicted that by 2050 virtually all of the world's coral reefs would be in danger.

This decline is likely to have severe impacts on coastal villages, particularly in developing countries, where many people depend on the reefs for fishing and tourism. Globally, about 275 million people live within 19 miles of a reef.

IUCN, which is holding its quadrennial World Conservation Congress on Jeju island in South Korea this week, said swift action was vital. The organisation called for catch quotas to limit fishing, more marine-protected areas where fishing would be banned, and measures that would halt the run-off of fertilisers from farmland around the coast. To save reefs around the world, moves to stave off global warming would also be needed, the group said.

On a few of the more remote Caribbean reefs, the situation is less dire. In the Netherlands Antilles, Cayman Islands and a few other places, the die-off has been slower, with up to 30% coverage of live coral still remaining. The scientists noted that these reefs were in areas less exposed to human impact from fishing and pollution, as well as to natural disasters such as hurricanes.

The report – compiled by 36 scientists from 18 countries – was the work of the IUCN-coordinated Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

guardian.co.uk


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#446392 - 09/12/12 12:33 PM Re: Caribbean coral reefs face collapse [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

In the Caribbean Coral Die-Off, Myriad Wrinkles

In Caribbean Coral, a Complex Picture

At its ongoing conference in South Korea, the International Union for Conservation of Nature released a report on Friday indicating that live coral coverage on reefs in the Caribbean has plummeted from nearly 50 percent in the 1970s to less than 10 percent today. Yet describing the entire Caribbean as a region where reefs are in a state of general collapse tends to cloud the problem’s complexity, the study suggests.

The acidification of the ocean has contributed to the  bleaching and diminution of coral off Caye Caulker, Belize.
The acidification of the ocean has contributed to the  bleaching and diminution of coral off Caye Caulker, Belize.

Michael Lesser, a program director for biological oceanography at the National Science Foundation, acknowledges that the region is the “poster child” for the global destruction of reefs. “The pronouncement that the Caribbean itself would be in dire straits is no surprise – we’ve been talking about this for a long time now,” he said.

Overfishing has left its mark, as has the decline of species like the parrotfish and the spiny black urchin known as Diadema antillarum, which graze on algae and ideally keep it from stifling the reefs. Ocean warming and acidification add more pressure, bleaching and weakening coral networks. “It’s a sort of double whammy,” Dr. Lesser said.

But the conservation group’s report shows that the destruction is not spread uniformly. Spots like the Cayman Islands have up to three times more live cover than afflicted reefs in Jamaica and in the United States Virgin Islands, which also have noticeably smaller fish and an abundance of algae. There is also uncertainty about what causes coral decline in certain places, pointing up the need for varying strategies across the Caribbean instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.

Jamaica, for instance, struggles economically and is highly dependent on its marine resources, so overfishing is a primary concern there. Enforcing species protection and establishing minimum size limits for catch would therefore be a crucial strategy there, Dr. Lesser said.

Regulation of development and agriculture could help stave off a major threat to the United States Virgin Islands, where reefs are affected by land-based pollution and runoff that makes its way to the sea, the report noted. Ultimately, the study suggests that understanding all of the local factors will help tailor approaches for the long run and for the wider Caribbean.

As for a time scale for recovery, “We’re talking decades,” Dr. Lesser said. Yet hope persists because coral reefs have bounced back in the past – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, for one.

Inevitably, though, success depends on the resources that countries have at their disposal to protect marine habitats. Given that countries with a low gross domestic product like Belize or Jamaica will have fewer resources to deploy, Dr. Lesser hopes that a greater global pull toward coral conservation can be mobilized.

To people in places where coral reefs are healthier, he advises: “Look ahead to the Caribbean. It has the possibility of being a road map.”

NYTimes

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