Published April 12, 2013 10:28 AM

Corals in Crisis in the Marshall Islands

With our planet’s coral reefs in danger of extinction by 2050, why is the U.S. government mining healthy reefs to use as building filler?

Petitioners are calling for the U.S. Government to halt excavation of the healthy coral reefs that surround the Marshall Islands. Coral mining is taking place to provide building filler for the expansion of the Imata Kabua International Airport on Majuro.

Led by marine ecologist, Dr Dean Jacobson, those opposing the excavation say there are more environmentally-friendly options available to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Sections of this precious reef remain untouched for now. There is still time to act.

The FAA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transport funded by U.S. taxpayers, has been dredging live coral from one of the healthy fringing reefs along the Majuro Island’s shoreline, , when the filling material needed for the airport’s expansion could be obtained elsewhere. This coral mining in the Marshall Islands is in direct conflict with Bill Clinton's 1998 Executive Order 13089, which set out, "to preserve and protect the biodiversity, health, heritage, and social and economic value of U.S. coral reef ecosystems and the marine environment."  

Lack of public awareness, teamed with a determined political and economic agenda has meant that this environmental catastrophe has been allowed to take place openly. A concerned marine ecologist explains, “Despite violating Environmental Protection Agency regulations, no environmental assessment has been done, no mitigation strategies like coral transplanting from the dredge site are underway so FAA and US taxpayers are funding the unnecessary dredging of a coral reef”.

There is a massive contradiction in U.S. policy between the sanctioning of this environmental destruction and the conservation work being done by other branches of the Government. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has recently pioneered the Coral Health and Monitoring Program. Through this program, NOAA has launched the Coral Reef Early Warning System (CREWS Network), which has made crucial progress in alerting experts to episodes of coral bleaching. This programme demonstrates clear recognition of the need to preserve coral reefs, yet coral mining in the Marshall Islands is still going ahead unchecked

The world’s oceans constitute an essential resource for all life on earth, and are currently facing potentially catastrophic problems such as rising temperatures, ocean-acidification and overfishing. General estimates indicate that approximately 10% of the world’s coral reefs are already dead and about 60% are under threat. By the 2030s, 90% of reefs are expected to be at risk from both human activities and climate change and by 2050, all coral reefs will be in danger (World institute, Reefs at Risk revisited, 2012).

Acidification, (the process of the world’s oceans becoming more acidic) is caused by the ocean’s absorption of the increased Carbon Dioxide (CO²) output in the atmosphere. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in December 2012, stated that, “Ocean acidity has increased by about 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution”, which according to their analysis is, “many times faster than anything experienced in the last 250 million years”.

The consequences are extremely worrying. Acidic waters prevent marine creatures from being able to construct skeletons, and coral reefs are formed by the skeletal materials of corals as they grow and reproduce. If acidity levels continue to rise at this alarming rate, we will be facing the extinction of many oceanic life forms as the oceans become increasingly inhospitable

Considering these alarming predictions for one of our most vital ecosystems, the senseless destruction of healthy coral reef for runway filler is unimaginably irresponsible.

Coral reefs not only provide a habitat for over a million different species of marine life, but also act as essential off-shore barriers and wave breaks that protect beaches and coastal communities.. While many argue that seawalls should be built to protect low-lying areas from natural disasters, including tsunamis and flooding, this method is expensive and has adverse ecological effects. As sea levels are predicted to rise, and weather patterns become more extreme, it is ever more important to protect and restore some of the earth’s natural coastal defences that lie on the sea bed – our coral reefs.

To this end, there is a veritable army of people on the front-line of marine conservation; researchers, local communities and grassroots organisations, all working to understand, and protect these threatened ecosystems, and develop methods for restoring them.

People such as Lisa Carne, who, after Hurricane Iris devastated coral reefs in Southern Belize in 2001, initiated a project which involves the transplantation of live, broken pieces of coral to those affected by the hurricane. The survival rate of the transported coral is extremely high and this method of reef restoration is now widely recognised within the marine conservation community.

In Florida, a team of dedicated conservationists is developing new offshore reef restoration methods. The Coral Restoration Foundation is a small non-profit marine conservation organization head-quartered in Key Largo, that ‘farms’ corals for transplantation into reef systems.

Other reef restoration methods involve the construction of artificial reef systems, using technologies such as such as Biorock™, which involves electrified steel structures that accelerate the accretion of calcium carbonate from the water, speeding up the process by which corals can form their hard skeletons. This technology is active in many places, including, incredibly, the Marshall Islands themselves.

Yet reef restoration is a slow process (corals are extremely slow growing), and also potentially costly; relatively small Biorock™ structures can cost over $1000 to build and install. Karl Fellenius, Coral Reef EIA Consultant, emphasises the importance of mobilising local groups whose lives are directly affected by the state of their reefs. He says, “There is so much money being spent...mobilizing resources for response to natural disasters. Much more should be allocated to community-based management or to 'soft' or natural approaches to shoreline protection.”

Community-driven approaches to protecting what natural reef systems we already have are clearly preferable to having to invest in reef restoration and man-made coastal defences. To assist in the development of these kinds of community-led strategies for conservation and sustainable development, a new website,, has recently arrived on the conservation and development landscape, and is poised to help connect communities that are facing similar environmental or socio-economic challenges.

Creating successful, holistic solutions and inclusive conservation and development strategies requires dialogue, communication and cooperation amongst stakeholders, grassroots groups, educational institutions, and specialists. Through NGOpolis, harnessing the power of online social networking, independent researchers, students, professionals, academics and activists will now be able to build an extensive, global community of interest and action. Bypassing the politics of development and conservation will facilitate more effective, collective responses to some of our current challenges such as the ones facing our oceans.

Whereas many of the issues facing coral reefs such as ocean-acidification and over fishing are complex and widespread, requiring consensus building and international mobilisation, in this case the mining of healthy coral by a government agency  is an isolated problem that could be rectified immediately.

In order to prevent this situation from reaching a crisis point; where expensive and time consuming reef reconstruction will be necessary to protect the shoreline from erosion and to salvage livelihoods that rely on the economic benefits the reef provides; Dr Jacobson, and the community living on Majuro, are demanding the immediate cessation of coral mining from their local reefs. The College of the Marshall Islands, of which Dr Jacobson is a faculty member, does not have an official position on this critical issue.

The mining of healthy, live coral is incomprehensible at a time when everything possible needs to be done to save our ocean ecosystems. Signing Dr Jacobson’s petition directed towards the U.S Government is one simple step towards the protection of this one precious reef.

Author credit: Eleanor Ward

The Marshall Islands' beautiful coral reefs are vibrant ecosystems.

The result of coral mining, a 'borrow pit'; nothing remains of the living reef.

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