The State of Coral Reefs Worldwide

Last week, Reef Brief looked at the negative impact that coral bleaching has on our reef. The damage that our reef is currently experiencing is in no way an isolated event--reefs worldwide are being threatened at an alarming rate. The reason that it is now being brought to our attention is that in the past year record sea temperatures have triggered the largest mass die-off of tropical corals in modern times. Some reports state that more than 70 percent of the corals, that form the backbone of ocean ecosystems across the globe, have been destroyed.

Coral reefs grow in the warm, shallow oceans that band the Equator. There are 67 species of coral that are found in the Caribbean Sea, and some 450 species found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans around the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. Colonies of coral grow slowly, at a rate of about half an inch per year, and some have been growing for at least 50 million years. It would seem that coral has had time on its side, yet with all of the changes (temperature, industrial) that have taken place in the past few decades, the future of the world's reefs is seriously threatened.

The Washington Post recently published a study that stated that the warm weather of 1998, due to El Niño, resulted in the hottest year in at least six centuries. The study continued, that "scientists have documented a string of `mass bleachings' since the mid-80's, but last year's stood out both in severity and geographic scale." Coral bleaching results when water becomes unusually warm and causes an imbalance between the coral and algae plants that live inside the coral tissue. When the water temperature rises, the coral reacts by expelling the algae and eventually loses its color, appearing "bleached." The study reported that "70 percent of corals died off across a wide region of the Indian Ocean, from the coast of Kenya to the Lakshadweep Islands off southern India. The phenomenon was observed in at least 60 countries and island nations in the Indian Ocean, Pacific, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Caribbean. Only the Central Pacific region appears to be spared." Over time, bleached corals can regain their color and potential for re-growth. Yet if the bleaching episodes recur too often, the corals can succumb and die off. Corals weakened by bleaching also become susceptible to threats such as agrochemical (pesticides) and industrial pollution (waste oil).

Regardless of whether the threats facing the world's coral reefs result from natural or industrial causes, it should act as a wake-up call for us to look at the pressures modern populations are putting on tropical resources. We in Belize should not take for granted the mostly healthy and pristine state of our reef. We should learn from what is taking place across the globe and minimize the impact of global warming by decreasing pollution and further degradation of our reef. At Green Reef, we are doing our best to increase awareness of our coastal environment. If you would like to learn more about our reef, please stop by the Green Reef headquarters/educational center (across from the Lion's Den).

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun

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