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Tuesday, December 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Coral-reef health continues to plummet, study says

By John Heilprin
The Associated Press

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Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network
WASHINGTON — Only about 30 percent of the world's coral reefs are healthy, down from 41 percent two years ago, according to a study released yesterday that lists global warming as the top threat.

The study found as many as one-fifth of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed. Half are damaged but could be saved, it said.

Coral reefs are among the oldest and most diverse forms of life. They provide food and shelter to fish and protect shores from erosion.

While covering less than 1 percent of the Earth's surface, they help drive food chains and economies around the planet, with $375 billion in economic benefits globally, according to the study by 240 scientists.

After global warming — blamed for higher water temperatures and carbon-dioxide concentrations — threats to the reefs include coral disease, overfishing, coastal development and pollution runoff.

"Reefs need our help, but they're not going to go extinct," said Clive Wilkinson, the study's lead author and coordinator of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. Still, he said, it's crucial to "raise the level of political will" to help reefs around the world.

"We know they're degrading fast, we know what the problems are, we know how to fix them," Wilkinson said at news conference by the Swiss-based World Worldlife Fund. "We've just got to do it."

About 65 percent of the Persian Gulf's reefs have been destroyed, the report said. Next in terms of damage are reefs off South and Southeast Asia, where 45 percent and 38 percent, respectively, have been destroyed.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, a Commerce Department undersecretary who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, called reefs a global issue.

"It is not just a nice thing from an environmental perspective," Lautenbacher said. "It is essential to life on Earth."

A more positive development is the recovery of about two-fifths of the reefs that were seriously damaged by an unprecedented coral "bleaching" from unusually warm waters in 1998. The bleaching had damaged about 16 percent of global reefs.
 
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Most of the reefs that have recovered are in the Indian Ocean, are part of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia or are in the western Pacific, particularly around Palau. Australia has put as much as a third of both its Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef marine park off limits to fishing.

The Caribbean has lost 80 to 98 percent of its elkhorn and staghorn coral, two of the region's most common species, the scientists said, suggesting the United States should consider listing them as endangered species. An environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, has petitioned the Bush administration to do that.

The administration's efforts so far to protect coral reefs include improving monitoring and satellite surveillance, agreeing to treaty restrictions on international trade in coral reefs and distributing $10 million in grants, Lautenbacher said.

The administration is also considering creating a national marine sanctuary and banning commercial fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to protect the chain's reefs.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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