reefs are often described as the functional equivalent of a rainforest,
providing everything from grounds for fish to grow to a visual feast
for underwater tourism.
of fish, lobsters, sea turtles and other creatures live off the
intricate reef structure. Coral reefs cover less than 1 percent
of the ocean floor but support about 25 percent of all marine
life, according to the International Coral Reef Information Network.
shorelines from waves, helping prevent loss of life and property
and protecting against erosion. Since they serve as habitat for
fish and other marine species, they are vital to commercial fisheries
and contribute about 25 percent of the food catch for developing
nations, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
are still just learning about reefs' potential benefits, including
in the medical field, said Joe Pawlik, associate program officer
in biological oceanography at the National Science Foundation.
a vast warehouse of various forms of life," he said, and
from those animals and plants, drugs can be developed.
One of the
most famous results from reef research is AZT, a treatment for
those infected with HIV. An analysis of the chemicals from a Caribbean
sponge provided vital clues to make AZT. Reef-related research
has also helped in the advancement of treatments for cardiovascular
diseases, skin cancer and leukemia and the use of bone grafting
of coral reefs are also economic. A 2002 Global Coral Reef Monitoring
Network report says reefs provide about $375 billion per year
in goods and services to the world. In the Florida Keys alone,
coral reefs create about $1.2 billion annually from tourism, such
as diving tours, hotels, restaurants and other businesses, according
coral reef in the world is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia,
and the second largest is off the coast of Belize in Central America.
reefs cover about 6,500 square miles, 90 percent of which around
U.S. islands in the Western Pacific and the rest off Florida,
Texas and U.S. islands in the Caribbean. According to NOAA, about
27 percent of U.S. coral reefs are gone and another two-thirds
will be lost within the next 30 years.
exist where land, sea and air meet, which can be a precarious
spot. While reefs have evolved over hundreds of millions of years
to cope with changes to the environment, recent evidence of a
general decline shows stress factors may be outpacing reefs' recovery
rate, according to a 2004 Pew Center on Global Climate Change
located in shallow water, reefs near populated areas can be subject
to factors such as nutrient loading from runoff, overfishing,
destructive fishing practices such as using dynamite, damage from
boats and nets, unintentional transportation of invasive species
and the collection of coral.
warm ocean currents during El Nino and La Nina events can cause
a phenomenon called coral bleaching. Scientists are concerned
global climate change is contributing to this effect. Coral gets
oxygen and nutrients from tiny algae, which also give the coral
its color but are expelled under environmental stresses. Mass
coral bleaching can occur when the water temperature rises. Smaller
patches of bleaching can occur from chemical spills or increased
also are keeping an eye on how non-native species impact coral
reefs. For example, the spiny and venomous lionfish, a native
of the Indian and southwestern Pacific oceans, now lives off the
coast of Florida and as far north as Long Island, N.Y., said Pawlik.
The ravenous fish eats smaller fish, which could have a chain
effect on reefs.
imagery, meanwhile, is used to track the path of dust kicked up
from storms in Africa as the millions of tons of particles travel
across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Researchers now believe
there may be a connection between the decline of Caribbean coral
reefs and airborne pathogens.
of coral reefs and the chain of events that can lead to reefs'
decline make it difficult to pinpoint sources of stresses. For
example, Caribbean coral reefs used to be overrun by sea urchins,
and briefly in 1982, sea urchins almost entirely disappeared off
the coast of Puerto Rico, which caused pathogens to spread and
prevented the recruitment of baby corals, said Pawlik. For unknown
reasons, sea urchins are coming back and so are the baby corals,
people are wondering if this is the natural cycle," Pawlik
explained, and if scientists are only observing part of the cycle.
of reef decline
difficulty in assigning causes to reef decline, NOAA and other
organizations offer suggestions on how people can "save the
reefs," such as not using chemically enhanced pesticides
and fertilizers, not leaving garbage on beaches and conserving
water to cut back on wastewater that makes it back into the ocean.
NOAA recommendations include anchoring boats on buoys instead
of reefs, reporting illegal dumping and when diving, avoiding
touching coral animals or stirring up sediment that can settle
on the coral and smother it.
A U.S. Coral
Reef Task Force is working on mapping and assessing the condition
of coral reefs in the Pacific, establishing coral reef protected
areas, creating a monitoring system, coordinating federal, state,
territory and other partners to restore injured coral reefs and
strengthening local efforts to protect reefs.
The task force,
established in June 1998, is made up of NOAA, the Agriculture,
Interior, Transportation, Justice, State and Defense departments,
Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation and
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They work with
the governors of seven states, territories and commonwealths responsible
for coral reefs.
In March 2000,
the task force set up 13 goals to understand and reduce adverse
impacts on coral reefs, including designating 20 percent of U.S.
coral reefs as "no-take ecological reserves"; mapping
all U.S. coral reefs by 2009; building a national reef monitoring
system to track reef health; and funding coral reef management
priorities in U.S. islands.
When the task
force began, only about 10 percent of the hundreds of thousands
of square miles of coral reefs were mapped and characterized,
said Roger Griffis, the coordinator of NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation
Program. The task force is more than halfway through the mapping
process and expects to finish before its 2009 deadline, he said.
satellite-based observation systems are helping researchers understand
how and why coral reefs die, and enable them to forecast incidents
of coral bleaching, said Griffis. When coral reef managers receive
bleaching warnings, they can adjust reef uses to reduce certain
stresses and make reefs less susceptible to bleaching, he said.
The alert system also raises public awareness about the health
of reefs, he added.
In 2002, the
task force called for the development of "local action strategies"
to address six key threats to coral reefs: land-based pollution,
overfishing, lack of public awareness, recreation overuse and
misuse, climate change and coral bleaching, and disease, Griffis
said. Coordinating the local-level efforts enables the pooling
of technical and financial resources, according to the task force.
On an international
level, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered
Fauna and Flora, or CITES, is a treaty that regulates trade in
coral. Certain types of coral are classified as Appendix II species
under CITES, which means they are not necessarily threatened with
extinction but may become so unless their trade is strictly controlled.
Coral Reef Monitoring Network, made up of dozens of nations, non-governmental
organizations, multilateral development banks and private sector
interests, works to raise awareness about coral reefs and promote
their protection and sustainable use.
The NewsHour's Science Unit is funded by the National Science
By Larisa Epatko, Online NewsHour