One-Quarter of World's Coral Reefs Destroyed

ByDaniel Cooney

N U S A  D U A,  Indonesia, Oct. 23, 2000 -- More than a quarter of the world’scoral reefs have been destroyed by pollution and global warming andunless drastic measures are taken, most of the remaining reefs maybe dead in 20 years, scientists said today.

In some of the worst-hit areas, such as the Maldives andSeychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, up to 90 percent of coralreefs have been killed over the past two years by an increase inwater temperature.

“You have to go and look at the coral reefs now, as we arelosing them,” said Clive Wilkinson, a leading Australianscientist.

Pockets of Ecosystems

Coral reefs, the “rain forests of the sea,” play a crucialrole in the oceans as an anchor for most marine ecosystems. Theirloss would place thousands of species of fish and other marine lifeat risk of extinction.

Researchers told the 1,500 delegates from 52 countries attendingthe 9th International Coral Reef Symposium on Indonesia’s touristisland of Bali that governments must “wake up” and urgentlyreverse global warming trends, cut pollution and crack down onover-fishing.

In some areas fishermen use dynamite or cyanide to catch fish,blowing the reefs apart or poisoning them, Wilkinson said. In otherareas, governments are pumping untreated sewage and other poisonouswaste directly into oceans.

But the scientists emphasized that the most serious andimmediate threat to the world’s reefs is global warming, which iscausing a damaging condition known as coral bleaching.

Warming Waters

The term describes a condition where higher water temperaturesheat the coral, which becomes stressed and expels the microscopicplants that give it its vibrant color. If the coral is not cooled,it dies.

Oceanographers say that the El Niño weather pattern two yearsago, which led to a rise in water temperatures by up to 6 degrees Fahrenheit, did enormous damage to the coral reefs, some of which had been alive for up to 2.5 million years.

Australian scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said 26 percent of coralreefs around the world have already been destroyed and that inanother 20 years, water temperatures are likely to have risen tothe point where corals will be sitting in a “hot soup” and unableto survive.

Wilkinson said the loss of the reefs would not only be a majorblow to the environment, but would also threaten the livelihood ofhalf a billion people around the world who rely on them for foodand income.

The reefs bring in an estimated $400 billion a year infishing and tourism revenues.

Wilkinson said millions of affected people in poorer countriesmay not be able to find alternative sources of income and maybecome reliant on foreign aid.

“The world’s attitude to global warming must change,” he said.

While many Western countries have started to seriously addressthe problem, some governments in Asia have ignored the issue.

Loss to Tourism, Medicine

Indonesian scientist Rili Djohani said many regional governmentscut their conservation budgets by up to 80 percent when the Asianfinancial crisis hit three years ago.

Indonesia’s maritime affairs minister, Sarwono Kusmaatmadja,said that half of the nation’s coral reefswere already dead and the other half could soon follow suit.

“We don’t have the resources to protect them,” he said.

Indonesia, an archipelago nation of 13,000 islands, reliesheavily on its colorful coral reefs to attract hundreds ofthousands of tourists a year.

Valerie Paul, a professor at the University of Guam, said theloss of the coral reefs would also be a devastating blow to themedical industry, which is exploring the possibility that themarine ecosystems may unlock secrets to new medicines.

She said there are many natural chemicals in the reefs that arestill to be found.

“It is likely losing the rain forests all at once,” Paul said.

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