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Coral Reefs Could Be Wiped Out By 2050: Report

February 24, 2011

Warming seas, rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other factors such as over-fishing could wipe out the world’s coral reefs by 2050 unless urgent action is taken to counteract these threats, environmental advocates warned on Wednesday.

More than three quarters of all reefs are currently threatened, said advocates from U.S. government and non-governmental organizations while releasing the report entitled, “Reefs at Risk Revisited.”

Swift action must be taken to protect these “rainforests of the sea,” the report warned.

Warmer seas caused by global warming, ocean acidification from carbon dioxide emissions, shipping, overfishing, coastal development and agricultural runoff are threatening the world’s coral reefs, the environmental groups said.

These reefs harbor fish, attract tourists, shelter marine biodiversity and provide livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

“Threats on land, along the coast and in the water are converging in a perfect storm of threats to reefs,” said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), during a news conference in Washington to unveil the new report.

More than 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs will be threatened by 2030, with nearly all at risk by 2050 unless action is taken now to curb the threats, the report read.

“Local pressures” on reefs, including overfishing, coastal development and pollution, pose the most immediate and direct danger, threatening more than 60 percent of the colorful sea ecosystems,” read the report, which was compiled by a number of conservation and research groups led by World Resources International (WRI).

“Warming seas have already caused widespread damage to reefs, with high temperatures driving a stress response called coral bleaching, where corals lose their colorful symbiotic algae, exposing their white skeletons.”

“In addition, increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are slowly causing the world’s oceans to become more acidic. Ocean acidification reduces coral growth rates and, if unchecked, could reduce their ability to maintain their physical structure,” the authors wrote.

Swift, comprehensive action could help save the reefs, which have shown themselves to be quite resilient, said Lauretta Burke, senior associate at WRI and a lead author of the report.

“Reefs are resilient; and by reducing the local pressures, we can help buy time to find solutions to global threats that can preserve reefs for future generations,” she said.

Burke called on global policymakers to act quickly to improve marine management, curb local threats, particularly overfishing, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Without such efforts, the reefs could be lost, disrupting the livelihoods of half a billion people worldwide, many in developing nations, Lubchenco said.

This would mean fewer nurseries for commercial fish species and the loss of storm protection provided by the reefs.  Additionally, coastal communities would lose a vital source of protein and food security, along with tourist revenues.

Research has shown that allowing a diversity of life to flourish on a reef can help keep it healthy and more resistant to rising water temperatures.

Protecting important regions of the sea would be another obvious strategy, according to the report.

“The report is full of solutions – real world examples where people have succeeded to turn things around,” said Dr. Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy, in an interview with BBC News.

“However, if we don’t learn from these successes then I think that in 50 years’ time, most reefs will be gone – just banks of eroding limestone, overgrown with algae and grazed by a small variety of small fish.”

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