>Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on earth. They offer unmatched beauty while protecting shorelines and providing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of food, jobs and recreation. For centuries, many tropical island and coastal cultures have depended on coral reefs for sustenance and livelihoods.
>Divers make pilgrimages to experience the wonders of reefs, seeking adventures and encounters with nature. But we see the changes taking place in the undersea world. Many coral reefs are bleached or disappearing, and the species that depend on them are dwindling.
>Broad protections for reefs have been in effect for years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with other federal and state agencies as well as industry and conservation groups, work alongside ocean users to protect reefs. Although these efforts have resulted in many successes, corals are still at risk. In an effort to confront the challenges that threaten corals with extinction, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) is now proposing new protections for many coral species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
>In 2009 the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned NOAA Fisheries to list 83 species of reef-building corals. The agency determined 82 of those species merited further consideration for listing and convened seven expert federal scientists to evaluate the status of each species, reviewing threats, vulnerability and risk of extinction. Additionally, a management group evaluated existing regulations and conservation actions that provide protection for these corals. In December 2012, NOAA Fisheries proposed listing 66 of those species under the ESA. A final determination is due in December 2013.
>Let's examine the big three.
>Ocean warming and ocean acidification. These two global threats are very different but share the same cause: rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most significant greenhouse gas in Earth's atmosphere. Activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, cement production and the clearing of forests drive this threat.
>Rising CO2 in the atmosphere has changed the planet's climate and warmed the ocean, causing corals to expel the microscopic algae from their cells, which leads to coral bleaching and death. Severe bleaching destroyed 19 percent of the world's reefs between 1997 and 1999, and more corals died during a second worldwide mass bleaching in 2010. Regional events caused local losses, including a loss of more than 60 percent of the coral in the U.S. Virgin Islands during a 2005 Caribbean mass-bleaching event.
>Rising CO2 is also entering the ocean, dropping the pH and depriving corals of the carbonate ions they need to build their calcium-carbonate skeletons. This one-two punch slows coral growth and recovery, kills corals and makes reefs erode faster than we've ever seen.
>If corals are listed under the ESA, federal agencies would be required to help conserve these species. Additionally, these agencies would be required to evaluate potential impacts of projects they authorize, fund or carry out and consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure they do not jeopardize listed coral species or damage coral-reef habitats. In addition, NOAA Fisheries would develop recovery plans — road maps for resource managers, landowners, fishermen and others to use to promote the recovery of listed corals.
>ESA prohibitions against "take" (harm, collection, damage, killing or attempts to do these) would immediately apply to any corals listed as endangered in the U.S. and its territories. A separate rule prohibiting take would be required for species listed as threatened. NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement along with cooperating law-enforcement agencies would be responsible for carrying out these rules with the goal of preventing extinction and helping listed corals recover. Divers who have a "look but don't touch" mentality have nothing to fear and everything to gain from these protections.
>Coral reefs are declining rapidly. We have already lost more than 20 percent of the world's reefs and will likely lose another 35 percent in the next few decades. It is clear we value these ecosystems. To ensure they're still around for future generations, we must reduce the greenhouse gases that are warming and acidifying the ocean and reduce stressors such as pollution, habitat degradation and destructive fishing practices that damage reefs locally. Both these steps are necessary to protect corals, and you can help.
- When diving, practice good buoyancy control, and avoid contact with corals.
- When boating, use mooring buoys, or anchor well away from live corals.
- When fishing, keep gear and lines away from corals.
- When dining, choose sustainable seafood, and avoid key grazers such as parrotfish.
- When traveling, use carbon offsets to reduce the impact of aviation.
- Conserve energy and water.
- Make sure your sewage is properly treated.
- Avoid using fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals that can run off into local waterways and the ocean.
>C. Mark Eakin, Ph.D., is coordinator of NOAA Coral Reef Watch. Chelsey N. Young is a protected resources specialist for NOAA Fisheries.
>About the Authors
>© Alert Diver —Spring 2013