July 7, 2008

Human Impact Threatens U.S. Coral Reefs

Half of all U.S. coral reefs, the center of marine life in the Pacific and Caribbean oceans, are either in poor or fair condition, a federal agency warns today.

The report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration places much of the blame on human activities and warns of further oceanwide decline.

Reefs closer to cities were found to suffer poorer health, damaged by trash, overfishing and pollution.

"Human impacts are making the big difference," says NOAA's Timothy Keeney, co-chair of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. "Humans are the most invasive species of all."

Coral reefs are living creatures made from the hardened shells of tiny polyps. They cover only 1% of the world's surface but play an outsize role in the oceans, serving as nurseries for young fish, centers of diversity for species and the underpinnings of some islands. Two once-common Caribbean species, elkhorn and staghorn coral, are now threatened.

Released today at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, the report looks at the 15 federally administered shallow-water reef preserves in the Pacific and Caribbean. Among the findings:

*Caribbean reefs were blasted in 2005 by hurricanes, disease and bleaching that killed 90% of all corals in some locations. Bleaching is a loss of color often attributed in part to global warming.

*Seafood species numbers are in poor condition at both Caribbean and Pacific reefs.

"Coral reefs are beautiful, but they are also tremendous economic resources," says NOAA marine biologist Jenny Waddell. Healthy reefs benefit tourism and fisheries, and serve as coastal storm breaks, she says.

The report is based on survey responses from reef managers, as well as reports from 270 scientists, Waddell says.

"We may be reaching a tipping point for coral reefs from changes in climate and overfishing, says NOAA's Mark Monaco. "But that doesn't mean we can give up."

By Dan Vergano


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International Coral Reef Symposium