Coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea, feed a large portion of theworld's population, protect tropical shorelines from erosion, andharbor animals and plants with great potential to provide newtherapeutic drugs. Unfortunately, reefs are now beset by problemsranging from local pollution and overfishing to outbreaks of coraldisease and global warming. Although most scientists agree that reefsare in desperate trouble, they disagree strongly over the timing andcauses of the coral reef crisis. This is not just an academic exercise,because different answers dictate different strategies for managers andpolicymakers intent on saving reef ecosystems. The cover storypublished this month in Geology helps focus the debate.
A team led by Richard Aronson of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabamatook cores through reef frameworks in Belize to reconstruct the historyof the reefs over the past several thousand years. Although somescientists have suggested that reefs began their decline centuries agodue to early overfishing, Aronson's team found that coral populationswere healthy and vibrant until the 1980s, when they were killed bydisease and high sea temperatures. The research effort was supported bythe National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution and theNational Science Foundation.
As Aronson points out, "Protecting fish populations is important in itsown right, but it won't save the corals. Corals are being killed at anunprecedented rate by forces outside local control. Saving coral reefsmeans addressing global environmental issues--climate change inparticular--at the highest levels of government."
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