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Earth's coral reefs in decline, researchers say

Scientist and reef
The coral reefs have been under study by scientists from numerous countries  
December 30, 1997
Web posted at: 3:38 p.m. EST (2038 GMT)

(CNN) -- As 1997, the "International Year of the Reef," draws to an end, scientists are warning that 12 months of especially intense research has shown that more must be done to protect the "rain forest of the ocean."

In the wake of the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, dozens of international organizations and many nations -- including the United States, Japan, Australia, Jamaica, France, the United Kingdom and the Philippines -- worked together to focus on coral reef assessment, monitoring and other research aimed at creating a better understanding of the condition of the world's reefs and how to keep them alive.

CNN's David Mattingly reviews the problems encountered by reefs
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Coral reefs are sometimes referred to as the "rain forests of the oceans" because they sustain an estimated 25 percent of all marine species and represent some of the most magnificent living systems in the world.

Coral reefs also support vibrant tourist economies, protect beaches and shorelines from erosion, act as nurseries for growing fish and provide a critical source of food and income for millions of people.

Reef and fish
Coral reefs sustain 25 percent of underwater life making them an important part of the marine world  

But coral reef ecosystems are under increasing pressure -- primarily from human interaction.

Of the roughly 600,000 square kilometers (372,000 square miles) of coral reefs worldwide, it is estimated that about 10 percent have already been degraded beyond recovery and another 30 percent are likely to decline significantly within the next 20 years.

As part of the International Year of the Reef, marine experts and volunteer divers worldwide conducted a study called "Reef Check." And all 250 sites studied showed signs of human impact.

"The message that comes out of 'Reef Check' is that overfishing is a much more important factor in changing the ecology and damaging coral reefs than people had imagined," said Gregor Hodgeson, global coordinator of the project.

Fishing, not least recreational fishing, has also been a key issue in research carried out in the Florida Keys.

Coral reef
New diseases are also attacking the coral's existence  

In Florida Bay and along the reef tract, seagrass mortality has been a phenomenon observed since 1987, and experts have noticed that mangroves are dying, too.

Evidence is growing fast that freshwater management practices have a serious effect on the health of those coral reefs. A massive growth in population over the past decades, impacts from land use, water pollution, boating, recreational and commercial fishing and the activities of 3 million tourists each year have all put tremendous pressure on the regional coral reef ecosystem.

The impact of fishing is especially noteworthy, scientists say, because recreational fishing is the area's primary tourist-related boating activity and commercial fishing has been a key industry in the region.

Some scientist have concluded that people need to change their ways if the coral reefs are to survive.

"I think we need to set aside parts of the reef where human disturbance is minimized, and that means no pumping out of the sewage on boats. And as far as water quality is concerned, we need to figure out some way to deal with the waste we generate on land," said Ben Haskell of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Researchers also said they found new diseases that are attacking the corals. The afflictions, such as "Black Band" or "White Plague," can cause coral to puff up, split and eventually die. Scientists say they did not know where the killer diseases are coming from, but efforts are focusing on finding cures.

Correspondent David Mattingly contributed to this report.


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