January 11, 2011

Project Maps Out Plan To Save Coral Reefs

The Edge Coral Reefs project announced this week that it has identified 10 of the most at-risk coral species for protection.

Conservationists have unveiled plans to preserve and protect the world's most important species of coral, helping to fight increasing threats that they say will lead to the species being "functional extinct" within decades.

Scientists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) lead the project, which has identified 10 coral species in most urgent risk of becoming extinct.

The scientists say that reefs are under pressure from a variety of threats, including rising sea temperatures, increased acidity, overfishing and pollution.

The Edge plan focuses on the most evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered species.  The project will take a regional approach to conservation.

The plan would focus on the "coral triangle" around the Philippines, the west Indian ocean around the Mozambique channel, and in the Caribbean channel.

"Coral reefs are threatened with functional extinction in the next 20-50 years, due predominantly to global climate change," Catherine Head, coordinator of the reefs project, said in a press release. "In these regions, we'll be supporting and training in-country conservationists to carry out research and implement targeted conservation actions," she said.

"Their projects will last initially for two years. We provide them with a whole host of tools to carry out their projects including funding and intensive training."

Coral reefs are the planet's most diverse marine ecosystem and they harbor up to a third of all marine life, despite taking up under 0.2 percent of the ocean floor.  Climate change causes corals to bleach.

"Bleaching occurs when sea temperatures rise and this causes the coral tissue to expel their symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae "“ these are what give the coral their color," said Head.

"2010 seems set to have been one of the worst years for coral bleaching. There have been reports on the coast of Indonesia of up to 100% bleaching of many coral colonies. In 1998, 16% of the global coral reefs were killed through bleaching."

A coral cannot photosynthesize when it is bleached.  There is a limited period of time where the coral needs to re-acquire zooxanthellae or else it will die.

"2010 was an El Niño year so sea-surface temperatures were very high "“ but these hot years are coming with increasing frequency now," Rachel Jones, a keeper at London zoo's aquarium, told The Guardian.

"Bleached reefs take several years to recover from that sort of insult. As bleaching events get closer together, the potential for mortality increases."

Among the 10 species chosen to start the Edge project are the pearl bubble coral, which is a food source for the hawksbill turtle, and the Mushroom coral.

The conservationists said that part of the solution in the future will be to designate more of the ocean as marine protected areas.

The focus of the project will remain on increasing the resilience of reefs to environmental change.

"That means trying to reduce overfishing and pollution pressures," Jones told The Guardian.

"Where we see reefs that are in very good condition, such as the Chagos archipelago where the reef is in fantastic condition despite being hit by catastrophic bleaching in 1998, it recovered better and quicker than anywhere else in the Indian Ocean."

She added: "The environment is changing faster now than it ever has done before. Corals have evolved to live within a very specific set of parameters. They're right at the interface between air and sea and it's a very difficult environment to live in."

"But they've evolved to live there as long as those parameters are steady. At the moment those parameters are shifting in a way that the corals just can't keep up with."

Heather Koldewey, international marine and freshwater conservation program manager for ZSL, said in a statement that "Corals are one of the most threatened groups of animals on our planet and iconic flagships of the marine environment."

"Edge Coral Reefs will focus on improving the resilience of the world's most diverse coral species, ensuring our coral reefs flourish in the future."


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