Coral reefs facing extinction

By Henrylito D. Tacio


Fort Lauderdale, Florida – Coral reef ecosystems are often hailed as the “rainforests of the seas.” But unlike their counterparts, they have not given much importance by people since they could not be seen. 


“When trees are cut and human beings are affected as a result of flash floods, people rallied against deforestation,” explained Dr. Bernhard Riegel, associate director of the National Coral Reef Institute in the United States.  “But like forests, coral reefs are also suffering the same magnitude of destruction.”


As a matter of fact, 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, in the Philippines, coral reefs have been slowly dying over the past 30 years.  The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, compiled by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), reported that 97 percent of reefs in the Philippines are under threat from destructive fishing techniques, including cyanide poisoning, over-fishing, or from deforestation and urbanization that result in harmful sediment spilling into the sea.


Last year, Reef Check, an international organization assessing the health of reefs in 82 countries, stated that only five percent of the country’s coral reefs are in “excellent condition.” These are the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park in Palawan, Apo Island in Negros Oriental, Apo Reef in Puerto Galera, Mindoro, and Verde Island Passage off Batangas.


Like tropical rainforests, coral reefs have much more to offer.  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.


About 80-90 per cent of the incomes of small island communities come from fisheries. “Coral reef fish yields range from 20 to 25 metric tons per square kilometer per year for healthy reefs,” said Dr. Angel C. Alcala, whose work in Apo Island, one of the world-renowned community-run fish sanctuaries in the Philippines, earned him the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award.


In addition, coral reefs crate a natural barrier (hence reducing erosion and protecting coastlines) against waves and storm surge.  Also, within t he past few decades, researches have recognized the potential for deriving medicinal compounds from organisms found on reefs.


But despite their importance, coral reefs around the world are facing extinction.  “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 are some 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,” urged Rretired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 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, Jenny Waddell, a marine biologist at NOAA 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,” she said.  “There is increasing use of marine protected areas, and that is encouraging.” — ##


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