At a time when coral reefs around the world are under siege from rising ocean temperatures, overfishing, and pollution, a federal environmental task force has set its sights on creating the first detailed digital maps of every coral reef in US waters.
They will do it in part with the help of eye-in-the-sky satellites and airborne photo reconnaissance technology developed by the US military during the cold war.
But officials with the Coral Reef Task Force are fighting a different kind of warfare. Theirs is a struggle to protect one of the crown jewels of the natural world from decline and decimation.
The seven-year mapping program headed by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will help local scientists from the Florida Keys, across the Caribbean, and throughout the Pacific Ocean to monitor the health of their reefs based on new highly detailed maps.
Not just mapping
"Right now we are trying to manage all these coral-reef systems, but we simply don't know the extent of the resource, nor do we know the health of that resource," says Mark Monaco of NOAA, who is leading the mapping effort. "This is not just mapping, but also research monitoring and education."
By creating a series of charts depicting reefs and their surrounding habitats, Mr. Monaco and his colleagues will establish a critical baseline against which the health or decline of reef systems may be measured in the future.
The maps should prove essential to environmental managers seeking to reduce or eliminate the impact of human activity on fragile marine ecosystems. And they could help American researchers keep a close watch on coral bleaching, an affliction that killed coral in unprecedented numbers throughout the world in 1998 in an event that many scientists view as an early warning sign of global warming.
"What we've learned is that we've seen really substantial change in our [reef] environment, and we don't have the baseline data," says Steven Miller of the National Undersea Research Center in Key Largo, Fla., run by the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. "Without the details of what was there before, we are at a loss to describe the causes and magnitude of that change."
John Ogden, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, says detailed reef charts can be a critical aid to researchers studying a small part of a reef by helping them place their scientific observations in the larger context of a regional reef system.
"We want to look at the whole system and understand how this whole system works," Mr. Ogden says. "The map allows you to make those approximations."
Jim Maragos, a coral-reef biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Hawaii, says many remote reefs in the outer Hawaiian Islands remain uncharted.
"Once they are done it will be the first really good maps of coral reefs since World War II when we did a whole lot of other mapping for strategic purposes," he says. "Since that time we've done very little mapping."
Mr. Maragos says that US waters throughout Hawaii and in territories across the South Pacific harbor a substantial number of reefs, many times larger than the total area of reefs in Florida and the Caribbean.
Pacific reefs important, too
Officials in Washington often focus on the Florida Keys and the Caribbean because they are closer to the nation's capital and more accessible to divers, he says.
But the Pacific reefs are massive and important. "Very few people realize that the US has reefs in many parts of the Pacific," he says. "If you don't even know the names of the reefs how are you going to protect them?"
Not everyone involved in reef conservation is a fan of the mapping project. Deevon Quirolo, executive director of the grass-roots advocacy group Reef Relief in Key West, Fla., says direct action at the local level will do more to protect reefs than obtaining maps from a national task force.
"We know the reefs like the back of our hand," she says. "I'm not saying we can't learn, but mapping is not a big priority for those of us who see things like sewage and anchor damage and agricultural runoff killing our reefs."
The Coral Reef Task Force also faces some opposition among members of Congress who cut NOAA's proposed coral-reef management budget from $12 million to $8 million, with about $500,000 for the mapping project.
That's half the mapping funds NOAA sought. Some analysts say reluctance to fund the projects seems motivated in part by congressional Republicans trying to avoid handing Vice President Al Gore a legislative success on an environmental issue that might help his campaign for president.
"I presume there will be a little funding in [the federal budget] for this, but not nearly enough to do the job," says Ogden of the Florida Institute of Oceanography.
Mr. Miller says the map project is a good national investment that may pay important dividends in years to come.
"We know that specific reefs are in bad shape, but not all reefs are in bad shape," he says.
"It is important to know where good reefs remain because they are likely to be the seed stock in the future."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society