Report says Pacific nations face economic devastation as coral reefs die out

Scientists gathered at an international symposium on coral reefs warned that the Pacific Ocean faces losing the majority of its coral reefs by the end of the century and that the economies of its islands will be crippled.

Barring major reforms, “coral reefs face a bleak future” concluded a panel of scientists, including some of the world’s pre-eminent marine biologists, representing the 1,500 delegates from over 50 nations at the Ninth International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) held in Bali, Indonesia, from 24-27 October. The conference saw the release of two devastating reports on the situation of coral reefs, one painting a very bleak picture of Pacific nations dependent on their survival. The resounding message was all too clear: for the nations of the world to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Pacific in Peril: Biological, economic and social impacts of climate change on Pacific coral reefs, released by Greenpeace, concludes that the Pacific Ocean “could lose the majority of its coral reefs by the end of the century due to global warming”, and that, by as early as 2020, the 13 Pacific nations examined could expect serious economic decline, due to increased sea temperatures and coral bleaching.

The report says that by 2020, Pacific nations, dependent on fishing and tourism, in turn reliant on coral reefs, could lose from 15% to 20% of their Gross Domestic Product, or between US$2.1 billion and US2.6 billion, as corals die. Tourism income and resulting employment could drop by between 25% and 75%. Reef fisheries could drop by 25% to 50% and ocean-travelling fisheries by 10% to 25%. The most vulnerable Pacific nations are likely to be Tuvalu and Kiribati, followed by Cook Islands, Palau, Tonga, French Polynesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, then Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji and American and Western Samoa, the report says. “This report tells us that the destruction of the coral reefs would have a much greater impact on the economies of the Pacific than the 1973 oil crisis had on the economy of the world,” said Greenpeace campaigner Kitsy McMullen.

Perhaps the most comprehensive of the 1,500 reports released at the conference was the Status of Coral Reefs of the World 2000 report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, which found that a quarter of the world’s reefs have already been eliminated and another third are severely threatened.

The overwhelming majority of scientists at the Bali conference agreed that climate change is having a significant impact on the world¹s coral reefs. High water temperatures reached throughout the tropics during the 1997-98 El Nino event caused coral to ‘bleach’ – expelling the algae it lives symbiotically with, causing the coral to starve, and maybe die, and leaves it increasingly susceptible to marine diseases. The growth of corals is also severely harmed by excess concentrations of C02 in water. “There is clearly cause for grave concern for the future of coral reefs if present climate trends continue,” commented Senior Marine Scientist at Alabama’s Dauphin Island Marine Lab, Richard Aronson.

Other threats to the survival of coral reefs, particularly in Southeast Asia, were identified as blast fishing, over-fishing, land-based pollution, and introduced species and diseases. Scientists declared an absolute need for strict enforcement

measures against destructive fishing. Delegates heard that economic analysis shows that Indonesia’s lax enforcement of blast fishing regulations is costing the nation over US$ 200 million annually.

At the conference, scientists from the University of South Florida and the College of Charleston and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, also presented the results of NASA’s Landsat 7 spacecraft study of coral reefs. Landsat 7 is able to match detailed surveys of coral reefs taken on the ground and has collected detailed images of reefs from nearly 900 locations until now. Its study of Carysfort Reef, the largest reef in the Florida Keys, found that the surface area of live coral in the reef has declined from more than 50% to less than 5% since 1975. By combining weather and tidal records with a catalogue of the physical features of the 2,800 reefs derived from Landsat 7 images, scientists can identify patterns of reef growth and erosion caused by monsoons, hurricanes and the ocean’s waves and currents. A detailed understanding of how these climate forces shape coral reefs will then help scientists to predict how reefs will respond to future climate changes.

The sobering conclusion of the conference was summed up by Yossi Loya, Professor at Tel Aviv University and winner of the International Society for Reef Studies Award for lifetime contribution to coral reef science: “As a coral reef society, we add our voice to the growing international concern on the issue of global climate change, and call for an effective reduction in greenhouse emissions over the next decade.”

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