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October 2001 Vol. 27, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The State of the World’s Reefs

why we divers must be concerned

from the October, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

A 424-page, full color, hardbound World Atlas of Coral Reefs was released in September by the United Nations World Conservation Monitoring Center, the leading organization to document and conserve the world’s coral reefs. Here is what UNEP has to say about the state of coral reefs.

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“Our new Atlas clearly shows that coral reefs are under assault,” Klaus To epfer, UNEP Executive Director said. “They are rapidly being degraded by human activities. They are overfished, bombed and poisoned. They are smothered by sediment, and choked by algae growing on nutrient rich sewage and fertilizer runoff. They are damaged by irresponsible tourism and are being severely stressed by the warming of the world’s oceans. Each of these pressures is bad enough in itself, but together, the cocktail is proving lethal . ”

“Many coral reefs are under the ownership of the world’s wealthiest nations. Between them, Australia, France, the UK and the USA account for more than one quarter of the world’s coral reefs — a critical resource in powerful hands,” says Mark Spalding, lead author for the Atlas. Indonesia, followed by Australia and the Philippines are the largest reef nations, while France comes in fourth, with 14,280 sq. km. of reefs located in its overseas territories. The United States is 16th.

Coral reefs are an important source of food for hundreds of millions of people. They provide income and employment through tourism and export fisheries, and, along with countless other benefits, supply compounds for medicines. AZT, a treatment for people with HIV infections is based on chemicals extracted from a Caribbean reef sponge. More than half of all new cancer drug research focuses on marine organisms.

The most diverse region of the world for coral reefs is centered around the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, with between 500 and 600 species of coral in each country. Unfortunately, these are also some of the most threatened coral reefs in the world. In Indonesia, 82 percent are “at risk,” threatened by such human activities as the illegal practice of blast fishing, where explosives are thrown toward the reef and the shock wave kills most of the fish and causes severe damage to its structure.

Threat and Conservation

The Atlas includes new information on the impacts of global warming and coral bleaching, including El Niño in 1998 that caused the loss of 90 percent of the corals in some parts of the Indian Ocean. Much of this damage passed almost unnoticed by the world’s policymakers. Marine scientists point out that had such levels of damage occurred in terrestrial environments, they would have caused a major public outcry. For comparison, this is equivalent to losing 90 percent of the trees in Europe in just a few months. It also provides new data on the spread of coral diseases that affect 106 types of coral in 54 countries. It shows that disease in the Caribbean has decimated entire coral reefs.

The Atlas also maps the 660 marine protected areas worldwide that incorporate coral reefs. Many are poorly managed and have little support or enforcement. It says they often only focus on controlling the direct impacts of humans on coral reefs ignoring the more remote sources of threats to reefs, notably pollution and sedimentation from the adjacent land. “Often remote from reefs, deforestation, urban development and intensive agriculture are now producing vast quantities of sediments and pollutants that are pouring into the sea and rapidly degrading coral reefs near many shores,” says To epfer.

Economic Potential

The Atlas looks at the economic arguments for better reef management and the potential income from 15 million scuba divers worldwide. It describes a new database listing 2,500 dive centers in 91 countries.

According to Dr.J.E.N Veron, a contributor to the Atlas, “One of the saddest facts about the demise of reefs is that it is utterly nonsensical.” Protecting and managing reefs is not just for the good of the fishes, in every case it also leads to economic and social benefits for local communities.” Spalding added, “ We now have dozens of examples from around the world of smallscale, often community led, systems for managing reefs. These have led to massive booms in productivity and some very happy local fishermen. They stand out as clear sparks of hope that we must use to teach others the message.”

The International Coral Reef Action Network and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center have joined with others to reverse the decline in coral reefs

“The growth of mass tourism, combined with the boom in the popularity of scuba diving, has brought the plight of coral reefs to public attention across the planet,” says To epfer. “Let us all now commit ourselves to the strenuous efforts needed to respond to the crisis of declining coral reefs documented in this Atlas, and to ensure that this unique ecosystem continues to feed, protect and dazzle us and our descendants for generations to come.”

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