WRI Report Says Human Activities Threaten Bulk of Caribbean Coral Reefs
Nearly two-thirds of coral reefs in the Caribbean are threatened by human activities, according to a new report by scientists at the World Resources Institute (WRI). Additionally, coral reefs are a vital component of coastal defense against the ravages of storms and hurricanes like Frances and Ivan.
"Many reefs are subject to multiple threats, such as from over-fishing and runoff of pollution and sediments from the land. We estimate that two-thirds of the region's reefs are threatened from these direct human pressures," said Lauretta Burke, lead author of Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean. "The very important overarching threats of coral bleaching from warming oceans, coral disease from new pathogens, and perhaps increased hurricane frequency are additional threats that put even more reefs at risk."
Burke and her co-author, Jon Maidens, launched the report and its companion Web site at http://reefsatrisk.wri.org/ on September 29, 2004 in Montego Bay, Jamaica during a series of high-level UN meetings attended primarily by government officials and scientists from the Caribbean. The full 80-page report is also available at the Web site.
"Reefs take a battering from hurricanes, which is a natural occurrence, but the threat increases if they become more frequent. When reefs get knocked down, the cost to people is dramatic," Maidens said. "If coral reefs are lost, replacing such natural protection by artificial means would cost coastal communities millions of dollars."
The report utilizes WRI's Reefs at Risk Threat Index, which uses geographic information system (GIS) data to determine reef degradation from four primary sources. This includes coastal developments such as sewage discharge, water-based sediment and pollution coming from fertilizers from farms, marine-based pollution such as those coming from discharges from cruise ships, and over- fishing.
"Human activity has undermined the health and vitality of reefs. The coral reefs I observed in the 1940s are totally different today. Sadly, none has changed for the better," wrote noted filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau in the preface to Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean.
The analysis of coral reefs throughout the entire Caribbean,an estimated area of more than 10,000 square miles (26,000 sq kilometers), used several other factors within its measurement index. For instance, when hurricanes arrive, Florida and the Caribbean nations are protected by reefs because of their ability to dissipate wave and storm energy. The authors used their index to calculate that shoreline protection from natural Caribbean reefs saves between US$700 million and US$2.2 billion per year.
"Hurricanes have been important in shaping the Caribbean. Reefs can recover from these storms, but not necessarily, and they're less likely to recover with all the added stress from other sources," Maidens said. "This has economic implications."
For instance, continuing degradation of the region's coral reefs could reduce net annual revenues from dive tourism which provided an estimated US$2.1 billion in 2000 by as much as US$300 million per year by 2015.
The authors estimate that Caribbean coral reefs provide goods and services with an annual net economic value in 2000 between US$3.1 billion and US$4.6 billion from fisheries, dive tourism, and shoreline protection services. Additionally, the report also focuses on ways all consumers can preserve reefs.
"When tourists are diving and kicking, they're not paying attention to the reefs. It's important for them to voice their concerns when they see something wrong being done by others," Burke said. "Properly managed marine protected areas offer some protection for coral reefs, but at present, governments are not investing enough in these areas. Our analysis points to the high value of these resources, and what will be lost if they are not better protected."
Another innovative feature of the report is its inclusion of the first regionally consistent, detailed mapping of these threats. These will help local, national and international organizations in setting priorities for conservation and natural- resource management.
"Actions to reverse the threats to Caribbean coral reefs can often be undertaken at very low cost, with very high financial and societal returns, even in the short term," Maidens added.
WRI first used the Reefs at Risk Threat Index to determine reef degradation throughout the world in 1998. Five years later, it was used to measure the threats to the coral reefs of Southeast Asia, the center of global marine diversity. This is the first time it has been applied to the Caribbean or used in a region that is heavily dependent on tourism for its revenue.
"We rated 88 percent of Southeast Asia's reefs as threatened. We only rate 64 percent of the Caribbean tropical coral reefs as threatened. However, the threat of disease, which is not included in the model, is greater in the Caribbean," Burke said.
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World Resources Institute