Coral Reefs Plundered Around The World

Press Release - October 17, 1997 -

An international press conference was held in Hong Kong on Thursday, October 16 to report on the progress of Reef Check 1997, an activity connected with~ the International Year of the Reef. Arnbergris Caye participated in Reef Check in June, with a week long programme held at Journey's End Resort. The purpose of the press conference was to let everyone know that the Reef Check survey was completed successfully, and they achieved their goals and more. In addition, the results show that human impacts on reefs have been found everywhere Reef Check participants looked.

The first survey of the world's coral reefs, Reef Check 97, has revealed the first solid scientific evidence that cyanide and dynamite fishing, pollution and overharvesting have devastated the 'rain forests of the sea' on a worldwide basis.

Organized by the Institute for Environment and Sustainable Development at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Reef Check involved over 100 scientists and 750 divers surveying more than 250 coral reefs in 30 countries from June to August this year.

The first global survey of the world's coral reefs, Reef Check 97, has been completed as part of the International Year of the Reef, and the preliminary results are being released today. Organized by HKUSTOs (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) Institute for Environment and Sustainable Development, the survey involved over 100 marine scientists and 750 recreational divers who surveyed more than 250 coral reefs in 30 countries between 15 June and 31 August 1997. The project was badly needed, according to Global Coordinator and coral reef biologist Dr. Gregor Hodgson, because coral reefs are the rain forests of the sea. They are one of the world's most valuable natural resources, a storehouse of billions of dollars worth of genetic material for drugs, coastal protection, tourist attraction for 7 million sport divers, and as a sustainable source of food. Sadly, says Hodgson, since 1990 we have be.en getting reports from sport divers of rapidly increasing damage to reefs all over the world, but scientific data has been lacking.

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With only a few hundred reef scientists in the world, and each interested in a different aspect of the reef, traditional coral reef science could not keep pace with the spreading affects of humans on reefs. A new approach was needed to quickly gather comparable data from many sites at the same time.

The Reef Check methods differ from most ecological surveys in that they were designed so that an experienced recreational diver with a highschool education could be trained in less than one day to carry out the survey as part of a team led by a professional marine scientist. Since the methods were specifically designed to measure human impacts, worldwide and regional indicator species were chosen based on:

I) their value to fishermen (the higher the better), and
2) ease of identification due to distinctive shape and color.

For example, the Humphead wrasse, was chosen as an Indopacific indicator because it is the number one target of cyanide fishermen due to its high value. The lobster is another easily identified high-value seafood that is found around the world that indicates the overall fishing pressure. In addition to the 21 marine organisms chosen, other indicators of human impacts were used such as corals broken by anchors and blooms of fleshy algae caused by sewage pollution.

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In October 1996, the Reef Check methods were posted on a scientific listserver on- the Internet and professional criticism was invited. The methods were finalized in January, and a Reef Check website was created and loaded with registration forms, survey methods, team lists, fund-raising information and photos of target organisms. Regional and national coordinators were enlisted to help organize the training, fund-raising and actual surveys. Many teams needed to raise large sums to cover their travel, hotel and diving expenses. For example, the German group organized a special Red Sea expedition. Aside from the scientific and educational achievements, this project is remarkable for two reasons, says Professor Gary Heinke, IESD Director. First, the project was run completely by internet, and second, the project was almost entirely volunteer. From an investment of a few thousand dollars in manage- ment costs, the project has produced about US$2 million worth of invaluable data. We are indebted to the hundreds of sponsors and volunteers who made the surveys possible.

The preliminary results are being released today because they so clearly confirm widespread damage to coral reefs around the world due to overfish- ing, destructive fishing, sedimentation and pollution. A full report of Reef Check results will be published within a few months.

While lobster used to be abundant on reefs throughout the world, some of the reefs surveyed reported none. Grouper over 30 cm long are targeted by many different fishing methods including cyanide. The site with the most grouper was located in the Red Sea. The Humphead wrasse is even worse off, were seen, showing that cyanide fishing has severely damaged populations of this once moderately abundant species. High-value, edible sea cucumbers used to exist in high numbers, and were totally absent from some of the Indo-pacific reefs surveyed demonstrating how quickly such animals can be over-harvested. Direct evidence of dynamite and poison fishing was reported at many of the sites. Some sites recorded an unusual abundance of fleshy algae, indicating the influence of nutrient enrichment from terrestrial runoff and sewage.

According to Dr. Hodgson these results are an urgent reminder that ocean resources are not limitless, and that coral reefs have been plundered on a global basis. The results were not all bad. A number of survey reefs were located within marine parks, and some of these showed relatively high populations of indicator species demonstrating the effectiveness of conservation to allow populations to rebuild.

The Reef Check project has highlighted what the major problems are and where. Most of the solutions are well-known. Funding agencies, political leaders and natural resource managers need to focus on implementing these solutions such as tighter control of fishing through e.g. satellite monitoring of fishing boats, increasing the number and size of marine protected areas and improving their management. In addition, more research is needed on aquaculture of high value species to replenish stocks. And just as education and legislation were used to reduce the ivory trade, a similar effort is needed to reduce demand for cyanide-caught live fish, particularly large animals that have a high value for ecotourism and that contribute greatly to reproduction of the species.

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