Earth's coral reefs in decline, researchers say
December 30, 1997
The coral reefs have been under study by scientists from numerous countries
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.
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.
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
"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.
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
Correspondent David Mattingly contributed to this report.