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WHAT ARE CORAL REEFS AND WHY ARE THEY IN PERIL?
December 3, 2001
Corals are tiny plant-like animals that depend on clean, clear waters and sunlight to survive. Under these conditions, corals gradually build the coral skeleton that shapes the reef and transforms it into an elaborate structure that can live for thousands of years. The reef structure is home to thousands of fish, lobsters, sea turtles and other species found no where else. U.S. coral reefs cover about 6,500 square miles, over 90 percent of them associated with U.S. islands in the Western Pacific; the remainder located off Florida, Texas and U.S. islands in the Caribbean.
As "rain forests of the sea," coral reefs provide humans with living resources and services worth many billions each year, a staggering amount for an ecosystem covering less than one percent of the Earth's surface. In the Florida Keys, for example, coral reefs attract more than $1.2 billion annually from tourism. Diving tours, fishing trips, hotels, restaurants and other businesses close to the reefs provide millions of jobs and support many regional economies in the U.S. and developing countries. Yet the world's coral reefs are in crisis. Nearly 27 percent are already gone and, if current trends persist, another two-thirds will be lost within the next 30 yearsthis is more than double the 1998 estimate. This rapid decline of the world's productive and economically vital coral reefs represents a serious threat to consumers, businesses, communities and the environment.
However, coral reefs are vulnerable to environmental changes, including the impacts of human activities. This is particularly true since most coral reefs occur in shallow water near shore where human impacts are the greatest. Among the accelerating threats, those listed below are particularly severe. Most stem directly from human activities in coastal and inland areas and are potentially amenable to reduction or elimination through carefully designed management action.
- Coral reefs are vital to U.S. fisheries. Approximately 50 percent of all federally managed fisheries depend on coral reefs and related habitats for part of their life cycle. The annual dockside value of commercial U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is more than $100 million. The annual value of reef-dependent recreational fisheries probably exceeds that.
- Coral reefs are often considered the medicine cabinets of the 21st century. They offer great promise for pharmaceuticals now being developed as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses and other diseases. And just one million of possibly nine million reef species have been identified. The pharmaceutical value of coral reefs in Jamaica's Montego Bay reef system is calculated to be between $54 and $85 million.
- Coral reefs also buffer adjacent shorelines from wave action, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage and erosion. Globally, about 20 countries have few resources other than coral reefs. In developing countries, they contribute about 25 percent of the food catch, providing food to one billion people in Asia alone.
- Coral reefs are also living museums. Not widely known is that some of the largest individual coral colonies found on U.S. reefs today were alive and thriving centuries before the European colonization of the nearby shores. Rivaling old growth forests in the longevity of their biological communities, well-developed reefs reflect thousands of years of history. They are an integral part of many cultures and our natural heritage.
Because decisive action is needed to preserve coral reefs, NOAA, in March 2000, joined with other federal agencies and coastal states and territories to unveil the first-ever U.S. National Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs to comprehensively address the crisis. The new plan is a national roadmap for more effectively understanding coral reefs and reducing the adverse impacts of human activities.
As a result of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force plan, a number of new events are underway to help protect and sustain coral reefs. For example, U.S. coral reefs are now being mapped and monitored. Comprehensive digital mapping of all U.S. coral reefs is now underway. The plan also calls for extensive public/private efforts to build an integrated monitoring system to profile and track the health of U.S. coral reefs. To ensure the survival of key sites, the existing network of U.S. coral reef protected areas is also being expanded. Sites are being chosen for their scientific, recreational and cultural significance and for their importance to fisheries.
The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meets regularly. The next meeting is on December 5 in Washington, DC.
- Pollution from poor land use, chemical loading, marine debris, and invasive alien species.
- Over-fishing and related harm to habitats by fishing gear and marine debris.
- Destructive fishing practices (such as cyanide and dynamite fishing) that destroy large sections of reef and kill many species not yet harvested.
- Dredging and shoreline modification in connection with coastal navigation or development.
- Vessel groundings and anchoring that directly destroy corals and reef framework.
- Disease outbreaks that are increasingly prevalent in reef ecosystems.
- Global climate change and associated impacts such as coral bleaching, more frequent storms and rise in sea level.
Relevant Web Sites
NOAA Coral Reef Web page
NOAA AND OTHER AGENCIES TEAM UP TO HAUL IN MORE THAN 60 TONS OF MARINE DEBRIS
Other Coral Reef Initiative Resources
STRONG ACTIONS TAKEN AS ALARMING NEW FINDINGS ABOUT CORAL REEFS ARE RELEASED
U.S. CORAL REEF TASK FORCE UNVEILS GROUNDBREAKING PLAN
Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network
NOAA's Coral Kingdom — coral reef photos
25 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO SAVE CORAL REEFS
Madelyn Appelbaum, NOAA, (202) 482-4858