One-Quarter of World's Coral Reefs Destroyed

More than a quarter of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed by pollution and global warming and unless drastic measures are taken, most of the remaining reefs may be dead in 20 years, scientists said today.

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

“You have to go and look at the coral reefs now, as we are losing them,” said Clive Wilkinson, a leading Australian scientist.

Pockets of Ecosystems

Coral reefs, the “rain forests of the sea,” play a crucial role in the oceans as an anchor for most marine ecosystems. Their loss would place thousands of species of fish and other marine life at risk of extinction.

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

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

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

Warming Waters

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

Oceanographers say that the El Niño weather pattern two years ago, 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 coral reefs around the world have already been destroyed and that in another 20 years, water temperatures are likely to have risen to the point where corals will be sitting in a “hot soup” and unable to survive.

Wilkinson said the loss of the reefs would not only be a major blow to the environment, but would also threaten the livelihood of half a billion people around the world who rely on them for food and income.

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

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

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

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

Loss to Tourism, Medicine

Indonesian scientist Rili Djohani said many regional governments cut their conservation budgets by up to 80 percent when the Asian financial crisis hit three years ago.

Indonesia’s maritime affairs minister, Sarwono Kusmaatmadja, said that half of the nation’s coral reefs were 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, relies heavily on its colorful coral reefs to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists a year.

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

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

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