By Henrylito D. Tacio
Fort Lauderdale, Florida — Twenty percent of the world’s coral reefs have already been destroyed, and another 24 percent may be lost within our lifetimes if human impacts on corals are not reduced.
For instance, while 69 percent of coral reefs in the Pacific region are in “good” or “excellent” condition, only 25 percent of Caribbean reefs are faring well. “There are urgent needs to reduce the threats facing coral reefs,” urged Jenny Waddell, a marine biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Currently, coral reefs provide more than US$15 billion worth of fisheries and tourism services around the world. In Asia alone, one billion people depend on fish caught in coastal waters dominated by coral reefs.
“Coral reefs are under siege from many threats, but climate change is among the most serious risks to their survival,” said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science.
Combined with overfishing, disease, pollution, and habitat destruction, warming oceans caused by climate change have contributed to the death of corals worldwide, even on some of the world’s most protected reefs.
Corals are simple animals that thrive within a narrow temperature range. They depend on partnerships with microscopic algae to help them thrive in shallow tropical seas. These symbiotic algae live inside the corals and provide them with energy from photosynthesis, allowing corals to build their slow-growing limestone skeletons. However, rising temperatures caused by global warming disrupts this partnership, resulting in mass “bleaching” events in which coral lose their colorful algae and often die.
But there is good news. Dr. Andrew C. Baker, which has recently been awarded the prestigious 2008 Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, is planning to develop novel and groundbreaking techniques to enhance the thermal tolerance and help them survive dangerously warming oceans around the world.
Dr. Baker’s initial breakthrough discovery that reef corals may be able to withstand climate change by switching algal partners was published in the journal Nature and hailed by Discover magazine as one of the “Top 100 Science Stories of 2001.”
“We need to redouble our efforts to protect this critical resource,” said NOAA administrator retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. urged during the launching of The State of Coral Reef Ecosystems of the United States and Pacific Freely Associated States: 2008.
Already, some organizations and businesses are responding to the call. Too Precious to Wear is one of them. “Corals inspire me and many others with their beauty,” said Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, founding partner of the organization.
The United States, as the world’s largest documented consumer, imported more than 26 million pieces from 2001 to 2006. The American market is responsible for 80 percent of the live coral taken from reefs (more than 400,000 pieces a year).
“Corals simply are too precious to wear,” deplored Dawn M. Martin, president of SeaWeb. “They belong in their natural ocean habitat, where they contribute to the survival of thousands of other marine species. Consumers and the fashion industry can play an important role in the ocean’s recovery by simply choosing products that do not harm the ocean.”
In a press conference, NOAA’s Waddel reported that marine protected areas are one of the most effective methods in conserving biodiversity and fisheries, “but they are limited in number and size, and overfishing and the degradation of habitats by alien algae are of growing concern.”
She added, however, that there is cause for hope. “We now understand how reefs are being degraded so we can take action to better protect them. There is increasing use of marine protected areas, and that is encouraging.” — ##