Coral reefs -- ecosystems of incredible environmental and economic value -- are showing evidence of significant degradation, but do not have to be doomed. We can make a difference.
Once plentiful, coral reefs worldwide and locally have been ravaged by a number of stresses, including global threats like rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, and local threats like pollution, overfishing and coastal development. An estimated 25-30 percent of the world's coral reefs are already severely degraded or lost, and another very high percentage are in danger of greater impact or worse. Some even predict reefs could be essentially wiped out within a human generation unless action is taken.
The coral reef issue is not only an environmental problem, but an economic one. The United Nations estimates globally, coral reefs generate over $172 billion per year from the services they provide including tourism, recreation and fisheries. In South Florida alone, where 84 percent of the nation's reefs are located, reef ecosystems have been shown to generate over $6 billion in annual economic contributions and more than 71,000 jobs.
In July, hundreds of scientists joined in a consensus statement written at the recently held 12th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns Australia, stating: "Across the globe, these problems cause a loss of reef resources of enormous economic and cultural value. A concerted effort to preserve reefs for the future demands action at global levels, but also will benefit hugely from continued local protection."
Is there good news for the posterity of reefs? There can be. Research is allowing greater understanding about how reefs response to threats. Consequently, there are clear steps that must be taken to ameliorate stresses. Some of these are easy fixes that include stopping overfishing, controlling pollution and establishing marine protected areas. Others, like the rising ocean temperatures that are causing coral bleaching or the increasing acidity in our oceans, are more complex.
Research can also help us learn how to restore these valuable reefs. This includes raising corals in places where larvae and juveniles are nurtured in a relatively safe environment before being moved to a location where we can hope to restore a coral population.
Offshore coral nurseries are showing tremendous potential for restoration. A corollary, and less studied technique, is to grow corals under more controlled conditions in on-land nurseries where they are less subject to stress and variation. These specimens can then be transplanted back to degraded reefs that need a kick start. It's a fairly new idea -- and one among others that we hope will lead to increasing the tools for restoring coral reefs.
Because coral nurseries can play a significant role in restoration, we are expanding our grow-out facilities. With our new reef research facility, the Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Ecosystems Research in Hollywood, Fla., we will triple the size of our land-based coral nursery operation. Our offshore nursery research area with thousands of corals will continue its efforts. We'll use state-of-the-art facilities to study coral stressors in a controlled environment in order to better understand the impacts of these threats and how to better take corrective actions.
There are many unanswered research questions: What size of coral best survives transplantation? When is the optimum time to conduct the transplantation? What genetic strains and mix of a single species will have greatest survivorship? How are the most appropriate species for restoration? How long does it take to restore a reef?
Coral reefs are the rainforests of the sea. And like the Amazonian rainforest that's facing extreme degradation, reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate. We are embarking on a critical mission to understand and restore reef ecosystems. It's a mission that must be accomplished.
Richard E. Dodge, Ph.D., is dean of the Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center in Hollywood, Florida, and executive director of its National Coral Reef Institute.
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