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Monday, September 1, 2008

Coral Reefs In Peril


For all of their natural beauty and rich biological diversity, the Earth's coral reefs face an uncertain future

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The Earth’s coral reefs are more than places of rich color and beauty. Like rain forests of the sea, the delicate ecosystems are home to a staggering number of plants, algae, coral, fish and mammalian life. Part of the threat to reef systems comes from the ruthless attack on apex predators like these reef sharks. Without apex predators, the system will collapse.
Healthy coral reefs are disappearing. In the fall of 2006, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force met in the Virgin Islands, where researchers issued a warning that 30 percent of the world’s coral reef population had died in the last 50 years. Another 30 percent has suffered severe damage, and 60 percent could die in less than 25 years because of pollution and global warming.

These numbers have taken even marine scientists and researchers by surprise because they didn’t know how grim the situation had become for these rain forests under the sea. This year, the International Coral Reef Initiative has launched a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the value and importance of coral reefs along with the threats they’re facing. So for underwater photographers who visually document the reefs, their work has taken on a new sense of urgency because the future looks so murky.

“The thing about coral reefs is that they’re these cities in the sea,” says David Doubilet, one of the world’s premier underwater photographers who has shot mainly for National Geographic since 1971. “Visually, they’re the most biologically diverse of any ecosystem on the planet. They have more color than any place in the world and soon there won’t be much left. These wonderful pictures aren’t just an exercise in showing an incredible ecosystem, but an effort to document a past time.”

Gone missing
Sweetlips congregate in a black coral tree in Raja Ampat.
Doubilet has explored the world over photographing freshwater ecosystems. When he began diving in the early ’70s, he took an unprecedented look at the Red Sea, producing a series of stories for the Geographic. He describes the reefs back then as pristine. Now, thanks to a steady increase in development, they’re devastated.

“When I began diving in 1971 on the Sinai, there were no boats, maybe one dive center, a hotel,” he recalls. “Now, there are 450 boats, 30 dive centers, 50 hotels. The impact on reef systems is devastating. In Indonesia, you can’t go back to the same reef and see the same things because the fish have to move around to survive.”

There are multiple culprits here, but there’s also widespread agreement in the scientific community that the root cause of the damage is human activity. Overfishing, pollution and coastal development are the chronic, insidious stressors that have overwhelmed the resiliency of many reef communities. Long-term, climate changes in the ocean and atmosphere have resulted in rising sea temperatures and carbon-dioxide levels. <

A major consequence of climate change on the reefs is coral bleaching—the reef turns white because of a stress-induced breakdown in the symbiotic relationship between the corals and unicellular algae that live within its tissue and provide the reef’s coloration. A decade ago, a team of experts found that high sea-surface temperatures had affected almost all species of corals, resulting in unprecedented global coral bleaching and mortality. According to the International Coral Reef Initiative, about 46 percent of corals in the western Indian Ocean were heavily impacted or died.

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