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Reef crisis as coral cover shrinks by half in 40 years

James Reynolds - Environment Correspondent

The Scotsman

25th June 2004

Coral cover has declined by half across the world in just four decades, according to new research that highlights a crisis in international reef management.

The study reveals "disturbing evidence" of a piecemeal approach to management of reef ecosystems worldwide and calls for a proactive global response to turn the tide.

Produced by a team at the Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity at James Cook University in Australia, the report reviews the large body of reef research published over the last 40 years and claims to pick up patterns and trends not usually detected in smaller, isolated projects.

They provide evidence that the increasing instability of coral reef ecosystems before their collapse has often gone unnoticed, even on reefs that are relatively well studied.

Professor David Bellwood, a fish ecologist and director of the CCRB, said: "Although these signs were exceptionally well documented, nobody put the pieces together in time to forecast their eventual consequence.

"The ecological symptoms were all there - reduction in the larger species, reduced fish stocks, a shift in the predominance of organisms to those which are destructive eroders of the reef and a reduction in the establishment of new generations of coral."
In essence, the ability of reefs worldwide to survive despite major threats such as global warming, over-fishing, chemical pollution, disease and sedimentation from urban run-off is at risk.

Rather than just recording what life a reef supports, the report says a critical aspect of understanding resilience in reefs is to realise that some fish and corals might be more important than others.

Writing in the journal Nature, Prof Bellwood explains: "If a city loses its transport workers, garbage collectors, police, fire-fighters or doctors, then it would collapse. The jobs people do are sometimes more important than their total numbers."

Professor Terry Hughes, a co-author of the report, said: "Unfortunately the main impediment to coral reef resilience is political will rather than financial resources - Cuba does a better job of protecting its reefs than Florida or Hawaii."