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23 Aug 07
Avoiding a Coral Catastrophe
By Krista Mahr
Near the close of the 1960s, a squadron of young scuba divers headed out into the warm waters of the South Pacific, tanks of air strapped to their backs and syringes at the ready.
Their mission, one lethal injection at a time, was to put a stop to an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish, a voracious predator of fragile tropical coral reefs.
Those early efforts along with a big printing of "Save the Barrier Reef" bumper stickers helped establish what has since been considered one of the world's best-protected coral reefs.
More than 30 years later, some of those dive bums have grown up to become full-fledged coral ecologists, and what they are seeing today is probably making them long for the halcyon days of the '60s.
Rising ocean temperatures, compounded by man-made factors like pollution and overfishing, have been catastrophic for the earth's coral.
"I grew up diving and snorkeling all over the world," says Gregor Hodgson, executive director of the coral monitoring organization Reef Check Foundation. "Those reefs are all gone."
In August, researchers at the University of North Carolina in the U.S. released the world's first comprehensive study on coral in the Indo-Pacific region, home to 75% of the world's coral reefs, focusing on waters from Japan to Australia and east to Hawaii.
The outlook is grim. In recent decades, at least 600 sq. mi. (1,550 sq km) of reef have disappeared every year.
"People thought the Pacific was in much better shape," says John Bruno, lead author of the study.
Scientists assumed that far-flung reefs in the vast waters of the Pacific would be safely isolated from negative human impact. They were wrong.
"There is no such thing as an isolated reef from the perspective of climate change," says Bruno.
Healthy reefs live symbiotically with algae, which take shelter inside the coral and, in return, pass nutrients to their host. When waters reach an uncomfortably high temperature, coral becomes stressed and kicks the algae out; this turns the coral white and essentially starves it to death.
Some local reef watchers are warning that their coral is bleaching nearly as much as it did in 1998, when El Niño-warmed waters killed 15% of the world's reefs.
Like receding glaciers in the Arctic, coral reefs are a canary in the global-warming coal mine. "They are a sensitive species that are affected first," says C. Mark Eakin, coordinator of the Coral Reef Watch program of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
Though climate change awareness is up, the public has a short attention span when it comes to ecosystems it can't see. So do policymakers.
Bruno says more coral data is being gathered today by NGOs than universities or national programs, particularly in developing nations. But even in the U.S., NOAA's satellite-data program, alert system and monitoring are second to the larger network of local groups and governments keeping watch over the U.S. reefs.
"Nobody wants to pay for monitoring because it's boring," says Hodgson.
That's why he founded Reef Check. Realizing that one man's chore might be another's hobby, Hodgson decided to fill the information gap by enlisting people who would be naturally interested in saving coral: scuba divers.
In 1997 he created a global network of volunteer snorkelers and divers, specially trained by scientists to monitor reefs using a standardized checklist. Over the past 10 years, Reef Check's volunteers have amassed a bounty of data on the world's coral.
"In the beginning, people were looking down on us, saying 'Oh, you guys are just volunteers,'" Hodgson recalls. Now, Reef Check has become one of the primary sources of scientific information about the health of coral.
Why are coral reefs so important? They constitute a vast, global ecosystem of species of plants and fish that people depend on for food as well as tourist revenue; in some areas, healthy reefs help protect the shore from potentially destructive waves.
But arguments about biodiversity don't excite people, so Hodgson, who's trying to get coral on the World Conservation Union's threatened-species Red List, likes to point out that several anticancer drugs are derived from reef species.
"Maybe one day a coral will save your life," Hodgson tells skeptics. "That gets to people."
In many parts of the world, conservationists are letting the natural beauty and allure of the reefs which generate billions in tourist dollars every year do the talking for them.
In one area of the Philippines, for instance, local leaders asked fishermen who had been making a living by blast-fishing, which destroys reefs, to trade in their trawlers for dive boats.
They did, the fish came back to the reefs, the local economy flourished and everyone tourists, residents, and coral ecologists alike was happy.
In cases like these, one hand washes the other, says NOAA's Eakin. "If healthy coral reefs are your bread and butter, you're going to make sure they're in good shape."
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