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

Article excerpt

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. …