Jewels of the Sea Fight for Survival In Fragile Ecosystems

Scientist seek protection of coral reefs that are threatened by a list of human activities

Tourists lolling in crystalline waters here may not be aware of the miles and miles of coral reefs that lie off this Atlantic coastal town. Some visitors may be equally ignorant of the contribution these reefs make to their vacation and the part tourism plays in the reefs demise.

These reefs provide a habitat for thousands of marine species. They contribute to the white coral sand of the beaches. They lure Scuba divers, and are a coastal protection against the ravages of the Atlantic.

Coral reefs form the natural resource base of most of the world's tropical tourist destinations and provide food for hundreds of thousands who inhabit coastal settlements. Their value lies not only in their aesthetic beauty, but in their contribution to local and domestic economies.

But coral reefs are threatened. Deforestation and the resulting movement of topsoil into coastal waters are responsible for destroying large areas of them every year, particularly in the Caribbean. Runoff waste from industrial, agricultural, and mining activities are also causing destruction of reefs.

To combat these and other problems, scientists are learning more about how to manage these precious ecosystems. Meanwhile, an international coral reef organization has been formed to share information. Yet progress has been slow as scientists, divers, and environmentalists wrestle with political inertia and a lack of funding.

"There is a growing perception of the need for management," says John Ogden, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography in St. Petersburg, Fla.

One answer to better management and protection of these areas may be to focus on the economic potential of coral reefs - for both local communities and national economies, say scientists.

"The most attractive reefs and the most economically valuable are those found in developing countries," says Edgardo Gomez, a scientist from the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines.

Developing countries, however, must grapple with a laundry list of other challenges to protect these natural resources including ocean sewage disposal, use of coral and beach sand for construction, overfishing, overpopulation, poverty, anchor damage, and careless tourist activities.

"The threats in many cases originate from human activities which are far removed from the coastal zone," says Dr. Ian Dight, the coastal and marine co-ordinator for the UN Environmental Program.

Global warming and climate change also cause damage to coral reefs. Even a slight rise in sea temperature can wipe out up to 90 percent of a coral reef and cause "bleaching," literally turning a reef white in the process, according to Dr. Dight.

To combat these problems, the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) has been formed to help protect coral ecosystems and simultaneously enrich the nations whose futures are tied to their preservation.

"The ICRI is an attempt by the international scientific community to stop reef destruction and unsustainable use of the world's coral reef resources, to expand and manage marine protected areas, and to network the science-based information for better decision making," Dight says.

The ICRI was established at the Convention on Biological Diversity in December 1994 by the governments of Australia, France, Japan, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Sweden, and the US.

It soon attracted the support of additional governments, UN organizations, multilateral development banks, environmental and developmental NGOs, and the private sector.

Many countries are already receiving support from organizations like the World Bank - which has helped fund the creation of several oceanic parks in the Philippines and Indonesia, Mr. Ogden says. Meanwhile, as the ICRI gains ground, it's expected that many other nations with coral reefs will follow suit. Doubts remain, however, over whether the organization will be actively supported in the future.

"Developed countries create 'paper parks' just as fast - for political reasons - as developing nations do and don't provide the ongoing funds," Ogden says. An example is America's second-largest oceanic park in the Florida Keys that has no budget to maintain its status, he says.

"The political will is often lacking to make the sacrifices," he says. It is the same situation for many of the world's 800 or so oceanic parks, Ogden says.

While scientists' support for coral reef preservation is growing, tourists and divers aren't always aware of the fragility of these ecosystems. American vacationer Wesley Trammel, for example, was surprised to learn of the threatened coral reefs here in Portobello.

"I had no idea," he says. "Smelling the bay in Panama City you can imagine that whatever reefs are there are in big trouble, but here in Portobello, I'd assume they would be in better condition," he says.

An estimate by the ICRI issued in 1995 indicated that reefs in 93 countries have been damaged or destroyed. In Jamaica alone, live coral cover has decreased by 90 percent while a similar situation exists in Panama. Other figures show a 50 percent decline in many areas of the Caribbean, according to Jeremy Jackson, a senior research scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City.

"All of a sudden we have woken up and in a very few years realized the gravity of the situation," says Mr. Jackson. In an area such as the Caribbean, Jackson says that a number of "meta-populations" (many reef systems in close proximity to one another) must exist for coral reefs to survive.

Due to the reef's susceptibility to natural disasters and coral bleaching, it needs plenty of other reefs in the area to allow it to re-colonize, Jackson says.

"If the number of different places falls below the critical level, the species becomes extinct, because it won't be able to colonize at a sufficient rate following even natural disasters," he says. In this situation, healthy-looking coral reefs, straining under the pressures of human influences, could be just a natural disaster away from extinction, he says.

Although coral bleaching is a recently discovered phenomenon and a natural occurrence it is nevertheless causing concern among scientists. "After a "bleaching event," the nemesis of coral colonies - seaweed - will move in and make it difficult for the coral to re-establish themselves. Although many "bleached" reefs do return to their previous state, it is a lengthy process.

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