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Can the crown jewel of world's coral reefs be saved?

Scientists and politicians are moving to protect the enormous biodiversity in the Coral Triangle – a critical marine nursery for tuna and other species.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2008

Teeming: Tropical fish swirl around a coral reef near Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean's 'Coral Triangle.'

C. Wolcott henry III/National Geographic/Getty images/File

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Nusa LembongAn, Indonesia

It's 10:39 a.m. on an overcast Tuesday when the skipper points his 40-foot pontoon boat toward a trio of islands off southern Bali. As he clears Benoa Harbor, he opens the throttle on three 250-horsepower outboards. Some guidebooks say the crossing takes 90 minutes. He makes it in 36.

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As the boat closes on Nusa Lembongan, the nearest of the three islands, a pod of bottlenose dolphins appears off the starboard side – the first hint visiting landlubbers get of the marine riches these waters hold.

Now, local residents and businesses, conservation groups, and the Indonesian government are laying plans to preserve those riches. In February, the parties are scheduled to meet to begin figuring out how to set up an effective marine-management plan for the islands. The goal is to ensure that the islands' aquatic resources are used in a sustainable way while protecting its most ecologically important areas. It's part of an international effort to shore up the ecological health of a 2.3-million-square-mile expanse of the Indo-Pacific Ocean known as the Coral Triangle.

Sometimes called the ocean's version of the Amazon Basin, the Triangle bursts with the highest biodiversity of any reef system on Earth. Some 75 percent of all the known reef-building corals – 500 to 600 species in all – call the triangle home. By contrast, Australia's Great Barrier Reef hosts some 350 species, while Belize's reefs in Central America host 70. In addition, the triangle supports 3,000 species of reef fish, twice the number found along the Great Barrier Reef or along East Africa's reef network.

For scientists, the origins of this ecological bonanza represent what Old Dominion University marine researcher Kent Carpenter calls "one of the greatest evolutionary and biogeographical mysteries." For some 2.5 million fishermen in the region, the triangle represents their livelihood; among its other attributes, the Coral Triangle is the maternity ward for Pacific and Indian Ocean tuna. And for conservationists, the Triangle represents an important source of raw materials needed to reseed reefs inside and outside the region damaged by bleaching – which many researchers attribute at least in part to global warming.

The challenge, Dr. Carpenter explains, is that "the Coral Triangle in particular has a fairly high percentage of reefs that have been destroyed over the past 20 or so years." The area experienced severe bleaching during the 1997-98 El Niño, one of the strongest in the 20th century. But it also faces other problems. The use of dynamite as a fishing aid, and even the practice of banging corals with rocks to drive fish into nets, "is quite prevalent," he adds. Moreover, some 150 million people live within what might be called the triangle's greater metropolitan area, providing a source of pollution that also undermines corals' ability to survive.