Alarming New Study by CRTR Warns of Imminent Danger to Coral Reefs

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Despite the awareness campaigns carried out by various conservationist groups, coral reefs are still diminishing at a steady rate. In a major study conducted by the Coral Reef Targeted Research (CRTR) group in December 2007, marine scientists predicted that if current trends continue, the world's coral reefs will not survive the global warming and acidification predicted for later this century.

Coral Reef

It's vital that the public understands that the lack of sustainability in the world's carbon emissions is causing the rapid loss of coral reefs, the world's most biodiverse marine ecosystem

Despite the awareness campaigns carried out by various conservationist groups, coral reefs are still diminishing at a steady rate. Irresponsible industrial and fishing practices, recreational divers and beach goers are all contributing to the loss of coral reefs. In a major study published in journal Science in December 2007, Marine scientists predicted that if current trends continue, the world's coral reefs will not survive the global warming and acidification predicted for later this century.

A coral reef is a diverse ecosystem not only comprised of the corals themselves, but also various other animals and plants which inhabit the area. Contrary to common belief, a coral is neither a plant nor a single organism, but a colony of tiny animals called polyps. Each polyp secretes calcium carbonate, which forms the hard skeleton which is characteristic of corals. Coral reefs are found all over the world, but tend to flourish in warm areas with the majority of the world's coral reefs in south-east Asia and Australia. The two largest coral reefs in the world are the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Belize Barrier Reef near the coast of Mexico.

Since corals depend largely on sunlight to survive, they tend to grow in shallow waters. However, this also increases their proximity to human activity. Experts have estimated that as much as 60% of the world's coral populations are directly affected by destructive human-related activities. In a report released in July 2008 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), analysis of the US coral reef ecosystems revealed that almost half of them are in "poor" and "fair condition". The problem is even more prominent in south east Asia, where due to destructive industrial and fishing practices being more common in that area, 80% of the area's coral reefs are endangered. On a global scale, a considerable 10 percent of the world's total coral reef population has already been destroyed.

According to the UN Atlas of the Oceans, many coral reefs get destroyed by land reclamation, the small country of Singapore for example, is built on 20 percent of reclaimed land. Bad fishing practices also contribute to the killing of coral reefs. In many poor countries such as the Philippines, cyanide which is toxic to fish and corals alike is illegally used to intoxicate coral reef fish so they can be caught and sold on the aquarium market. Other fishing techniques such as dynamite fishing where an explosive is detonated underwater to kill fish and deep trawler fishing where a net is dragged along the sea bed are highly effective in catching fish, but they also result in the vast destruction of coral reefs.

Human activity has such a negative impact on corals because they grow at a very slow pace. Although species such as the Staghorn can grow by up to 8 inches a year, the massive corals only grow at a rate of 1cm. This equates to 1 meter every 100 years. Dynamite fishing can destroy up to 5 meters of coral which then takes 500 years to grow back.

New research into the effect of global warming on coral reefs has produced even more alarming results. Scientists have found that rises in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are rendering oceans warmer and more acidic. While rises in ocean temperature have resulted in a reduction of coral populations, acidification has an even more prominent effect - it renders corals unable to create their calcareous skeletons. This problem does not just affect corals however, but any animal with a calcareous skeleton, such as snails, clams and crabs. Current levels of CO2 are increasing at such a rate that they could become unsustainable for coral reefs in as little as fifty years.

Drew Harvell, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and head of the Coral Research Team, which is also part of the international Coral Reef Targeted Research (CRTR) group that wrote the new study said, "It's vital that the public understands that the lack of sustainability in the world's carbon emissions is causing the rapid loss of coral reefs, the world's most biodiverse marine ecosystem".

"The livelihoods of 100 million people living along the coasts of tropical developing countries will be among the first major casualties of rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere," says Professor Hoegh-Guldberg, lead author of the Science paper, The Carbon Crisis: Coral Reefs under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification.

Coral reefs are extremely sensitive not just to toxicity and trauma but also to changes in temperature. Professor Hoegh-Guldberg emphasized that even a 1°c increase in temperature would result in severe coral bleaching while 2°c would effectively reduce coral reefs to rubble. Already the concentration of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere is 380 parts per million (ppm), which is 80ppm higher than where it has been for the past 740,000 years. This has brought around an increase of +0.74°C to global temperatures.

"We clearly have to do more to reduce CO2 emissions and still more in preparing vulnerable communities to the almost inevitable problems that they will face as a result of already entrained climate change", says Professor Hoegh-Guldberg.

Governments have been taking steps to save coral reef populations such as implementing marine protected areas (MPAs) where much like national wildlife parks, potentially damaging human activities are banned. In recent times, reef restoration technology has been used where low voltage electrical currents applied underwater results in layers of calcium carbonate forming on steel structures. This helps restore coral populations because corals grow at a faster rate on such coated structures.

Coral reefs are integral to the well-being of the planet and it's many inhabitants. According to the Indonesian Coral Reef Foundation, the greatest effect coral reefs have on our daily lives are:

  • Protecting shorelines from erosion and flooding
  • Serving as havens for growing fish they help keep fish populations up
  • Many reef animals are an important source of protein for the 100 million people living in coastal communities worldwide
  • Reefs provide income for many industries, such as fishing and tourism. The Great Barrier Reef alone accounts for £3.7 billion in revenue to Australia alone
  • Coral reefs provide ingredients for medicines

It is only in recent years that coral reefs have experienced severe destruction. If we fail to act now, says the Coral Reef Alliance, the effect of the loss of coral reefs will have great repercussions on future generations. The Coral Reef Alliance lists the things the general public can do to protect coral populations:

  • Be a smart customer - don't buy coral jewellery and make sure when you're buying seafood, the produce is acquired from sustainable harvesting procedures. If you're not sure, there is a seafood guide available on from Monterey Bay Aquarium.
  • If you own an aquarium, make sure the fish you buy has not been caught using cyanide or other toxic substances.
  • Don't stand on or touch corals when scuba diving or snorkelling. Corals are extremely sensitive to trauma and contamination.
  • Donate to the Coral Reef Alliance which is the world's only international organization dedicated to saving the world's coral reefs.

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MARK EVANS
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