US acts to protect its coral reefs

The Department of Commerce has announced new actions the US will take to protect its coral reefs, following a recent report that almost one-third of the world’s reefs have disappeared.

Referring to recent findings on the imperilled status of coral reefs globally, (see related story), on 11 December Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta announced several new actions the US is taking to protect its own reefs, including a plan to establish the Tortugas Ecological Reserve to protect coral reefs at the southern tip of the Florida Keys.

At 151 square nautical miles, the new reserve “will be among the largest no-take areas in the world”. Local fishers, divers, scientists, fishery management councils, and state and federal agencies have worked for two years to design the plan for the reefs, described as some of the healthiest in the United States. The area is upstream from all other coral reefs in the Florida Keys, making it a critically important nursery area that ‘seeds’ the rest of the Florida Keys.

The US has also established the first internationally recognised ‘no anchoring’ zones for large ships, which, following an agreement with the International Maritime Organization, will be marked all international navigational charts. The first ‘no anchoring’ zones will protect US coral reefs within the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Ships will now be directed to safe anchorage areas away from the reefs.

The US and Australia signed an agreement on the same day to study coral reef bleaching and the effects of climate change on coral reefs, Mineta said. Beginning in 1997, coral reefs all over the world began turning white or ‘bleaching’, a sign that the corals were under very serious stress. This occurrence destroyed approximately 16% of the world’s reefs in nine months, and in some parts of the western Pacific, 90% of the shallow corals were lost, Mineta added.

Another measure announced is a major project by the agencies of the US Coral Reef Task Force and other partners to map 10% of US reefs, as most US reefs have never been well mapped.

The announcements follow President Clinton’s creation a week earlier of the US’s largest ever protected area, comprising nearly 70% of US coral reefs (see related story).

“This coral reef crisis is not just something happening in far away places,” Mineta said. “It is also happening right here at home. Many US reefs are in serious shape.

In Florida, some reefs have lost over 95% of their coral since 1975. Even under ideal conditions, it would take more than a human lifetime for these reefs to recover. And over the past 20 years, some of Hawaii’s most common reef fish have decreased in number by 60%. We cannot continue to count on coral reefs to support billion dollar economies based on recreation and tourism while at the same time permitting unprecedented degradation of our reefs”.

In the same week, the largest settlement ever under the Park System Resources Protection Act awarded $1 million to Biscayne National Park to cover costs associated with the November 1996 grounding of the vessel M/T Igloo Moon. The tanker, loaded with butadiene, a chemical used in processing rubber, injured almost 500 square metres of reef habitat, including live corals and other organisms. The money will be used to restore the area where the damage occurred, and to compensate for lost productivity in the area.

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