"That biodiversity is holding the key to treatment of diseases current and future," said William Gerwick, a professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences who holds a dual appointment at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of California San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
"As we disturb that biodiversity, and reduce the species' richness, we change that equation dramatically," said Gerwick, who was not involved in the NOAA report.
Gerwick points to a drug compound derived from a species of sea squirt — small, colorful organisms that live on coral reefs — that has been approved by the European Union for treating soft tissue cancers. The drug, marketed under the name Yondelis in Europe, is in clinical trials in the United States.
Some corals have recently gotten better protections from the federal government. In 2006, two coral species were designated as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
Climate change isn't the only threat to coral reefs. Tropical storms, coastal pollution, even boats and their anchors are serious concerns.
"The declining conditions that we're seeing is exacerbated by having a number of threats work together to cause the decline," Waddell said.
The report — the work of 270 contributors — is being presented today at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"I think if we don't change the way we're going with these reef ecosystems we can't expect them to get better," Monaco said. "So we're going to have to make some hard choices — society-wise, political-wise, economic-wise — to protect these ecosystems."