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Coral reefs: Are we doing too little too late?

October 22, 1998
Web posted at 1:05 PM EDT

By Environmental News Network staff

Coral reef bordering a national wildlife refuge in the Caribbean.

(ENN) -- The world's coral reefs are taking a beating. Scientists and government officials around the world know about the problem, but is too little being done and is it already too late?

Civilization has been causing problems for coral reefs for a long time. Reefs have been overfished; harmed by harvesting practices that use poison and explosives to capture fish; nearly buried as a result of badly-managed forestry, farming and construction practices that create large quantities of silt and sediment that wash out to sea and polluted by sewage and other environmental contaminants. They have been targeted, along with their fish species, for hobbyist tanks, are routinely battered by storms and are being subjected to diseases that are spreading at a rate scientists never thought possible. Now they appear to have a new enemy -- global warming.

According to scientific testimony at a high-level meeting of government officials this week, up to two-thirds of the world's global reefs are currently in decline or threatened.

It's not that we don't understand the importance of coral reefs. They represent a multi-billion dollar economic engine for tourism, act as a spawning ground for commercial fish species, are a source of new life-saving medicines and serve as a protective barrier from storms.

In June, President Clinton issued an executive order creating a Coral Reef Task Force comprised of senior officials from 11 federal agencies and co-chaired by the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Commerce. The task force, charged with the mission of helping to implement research, monitoring, mapping, conservation, restoration and international measures to reduce human impacts on coral reefs, had its first meeting Oct. 19-20.

The gathered officials listened to testimony detailing unprecedented coral bleaching throughout the Southern Hemisphere during the first half of 1998 and learned that similar findings are expected in the Northern Hemisphere.

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's satellites show that during the first half of 1998, more ocean area in the tropics experienced exceptionally high sea surface temperatures or "hot spots" than observed in any full year since 1982. An increase of just one or two degrees above the usual maximum temperatures can be deadly to these animals. During the El Niņo of 1982-83, large areas of coral reef around the world were severely damaged by high water temperatures associated with coral bleaching.

Approximately 50 countries have reported coral bleaching since 1997. While many corals normally recover from short bleaching events, long-term or frequent bleaching may severely weaken the corals leaving them more vulnerable to disease, damage or death. Global warming is thought by many scientists to increase the frequency and severity of El Niņo events.

The presidential order directed the task force to come up with coordinated, science-based plans to restore damaged reefs, both in the United States and around the globe. The government officials have dutifully come up with plans that include:

  • establishing a comprehensive coral reef monitoring program to asses current reef conditions and allow managers to quickly spot, track, study and possibly prevent declines in coral reef condition.
  • grants for coral conservation projects to U.S. islands to support a wide-range of local-level projects to protect coral reefs, including education, monitoring, restoration and research (total funding available $170,000).
  • availability of funds to support public-private coral conservation projects (total funding available $150,000).
  • electronic mapping of the distribution of habitats and species within the U.S. coral reef system
The task force agreed to form working groups to come up with specific strategies to deal with these issues on a large scale. The specific strategies will be reviewed at the task force's next meeting in the spring of 1999 and be ready for implementation shortly thereafter. But "it will all come to naught, unless we get a firm grip on the global warming problem," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says. "Every nation in the world has a stake in getting it done."

The massive expansion of coral bleaching is a shock to scientists. Corals that have thrived for hundreds of years suddenly died in 1998, according to a report scheduled for release Nov. 19 by Reef Check, an international coral assessment program. Divers surveying reefs throughout the tropics found that up to 90 percent of some species of coral were dead.

Marine biologists say that hardly a reef ecosystem around the globe was unscathed -- from Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and from Belize in the Caribbean to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

What worries scientists is that while severe bleaching took place during the El Niņos of both 1982-83 and 1997-98, bleaching this year also took place in regions not affected by El Niņo.

Under current conditions, NOAA predicts that death could claim 40 percent of the world's coral reefs by 2028. So the question is raised: Can yet another government meeting really help the world's coral, or is it all too little too late?

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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