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Feb. 3, 2006 — NOAA today announced that it will expand regional coverage for the NOAA Coral Reef Watch Satellite Bleaching Alert monitoring system from six Caribbean sites to a total of 24 sites throughout the United States and international Caribbean. This is one of President Bush’s Ocean Action Plan initiatives that call for development of new international partnerships to enhance the management of coral reefs. The expansion was made possible through collaborative efforts with NOAA, the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility.

“This expanded regional collaboration reflects U.S. Ocean Action direction and the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force call for regional, interagency assessment of coral bleaching, mortality and recovery,” said NOAA’s Timothy Keeney, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and U.S. Coral Reef Task Force co-chair. He noted that NOAA Satellite data are critical to predicting and responding to the event, and will continue to be a key component of analysis of the long-term impact of the bleaching.

The alert system is part of a growing number of in-place components of an integrated ocean observing system, which in turn is helping develop a coordinated ocean research plan and advancing international capacity building.

The warning system will give local officials advance warning that a bleaching event is about to occur. With this advance notice, officials can take measures to prevent human activity, such as diving, boating and recreational fishing, from adding to the stress of higher sea temperatures already affecting the coral reefs.

NOAA also released today preliminary results detailing the extent of coral bleaching that occurred during last fall’s Caribbean-wide event. Based on data from more than 1,100 bleaching and mortality observations by more than 75 scientists in 15 jurisdictions, scientists estimate that as much as 90 percent of corals bleached with 10 percent mortality or greater at many sites throughout the Caribbean. Preliminary data summaries, as well as maps of coral bleaching and thermal, are posted on the web at http://coralreefwatch.noaa.gov/caribbean2005/.

Coral bleaching is associated with a variety of stresses, including increased sea surface temperatures. This causes the coral to expel symbiotic micro-algae living in their tissues — algae that provide corals with food. Losing their algae leaves coral tissues devoid of color, and thus the coral appears to be bleached. Prolonged coral bleaching (more than a week) can lead to coral death and the subsequent loss of coral reef habitats for a range of marine life.

Advance warnings of the oncoming event were first reported in July 2005 by the NOAA Coral Reef Watch Satellite Bleaching Alert system; the first bleaching was seen in late August 2005 in the Florida Keys. The bleaching spread throughout much of the eastern Caribbean, from Texas in the north, to Tobago in the south, and Belize in the west. Initial reports indicated 85 to 95 percent of coral colonies were bleached in some reef areas.

“This was a record-breaking bleaching event,” said Mark Eakin, Coordinator of NOAA Coral Reef Watch. “The 2005 bleaching event was the result of the most intense thermal stress that we have seen in the Caribbean during the 21-year satellite record. The cooperation of scientists from throughout the region was critical to our ability to understand the scope of the event.” NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch products proved invaluable to scientists and managers who were able to mobilize resources to assess the extent of the bleaching.

Announcements of the monitoring expansion and results of the bleaching event monitoring were made during a meeting attended by 40 Caribbean coastal and park managers in St. Croix. The meeting provided tools and advice for combining on-the-ground data and “remotely-sensed” satellite data into integrated coral reef management strategies. Ten researchers presented their monitoring findings from Puerto Rico, USVI, BVI and Martinique. Data from these and more than 1,000 additional observations were used to identify regional patterns of coral bleaching and mortality. Discussions centered on ways to disseminate the results of this collaborative assessment, and to begin development of strategic recommendations to help governments address future events. Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands participants committed to developing local bleaching response strategies before the fall 2006 bleaching season.

NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, in partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior, has taken the lead in collating bleaching reports across the region, and will summarize the workshop recommendations for the USCRTF and in scientific publications. Scientists will also continue follow-up surveys to document coral death due to subsequent disease outbreaks, most notably in the elkhorn corals in the Virgin Islands National Park. Elkhorn coral is one of two Acropora species recently nominated for threatened species status under the Endangered Species Act.

Together with The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Caribbean Program Office, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch and Coral Reef Conservation programs hosted the St. Croix workshop as part of the overall USCRTF response effort to bleaching. In addition to territorial agencies in the USVI, BVI, Puerto Rico and Martinique, participants came from the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, NOAA, the University of the Virgin Islands, the University of Miami, the Ocean Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy.

The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force includes 12 federal agencies; the governors of seven states, territories and commonwealths; and heads of the three Pacific Freely Associated States. The Task Force is co-chaired by the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the Interior.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources.

Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners and nearly 60 countries to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes.

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