Year of the Reef

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Science  14 Dec 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5857, pp. 1695
DOI: 10.1126/science.1153230

The coral reefs of the world, on which the news focus section of this issue of Science concentrates, are important for all sorts of reasons. For many, exploration by diving provides a unique connection with a fascinating natural ecosystem. For scientists, including climate scientists, the health of reefs provides insight into the physical and biological welfare of the oceans as a whole. And for conservation biologists, shallow-water reefs are remarkable hot spots of biodiversity; those that surround oceanic islands often include a level of specialized endemic species that rivals that on the islands themselves. But the corals of the world are in trouble, and that's why we need the International Year of the Reef (IYOR) in 2008.

There are two problems, both of them serious. The addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere has altered both the ocean's temperature and its acidity. Because most shallow-water corals exist near their temperature optimum, some are becoming heat-bleached. The more problematic concomitant of climate change is that when carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans, as 30% of global industrial production is, it forms bicarbonate and hydrogen ions, which lower ocean pH and threaten the carbonate structure of the reef with dissolution. Since the industrial revolution, average ocean pH has been reduced by about 0.1 unit, and models predict further loss of 0.3 or 0.4 unit by the end of the century. Thomas Lovejoy, president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, calls it “the single most profound environmental change I've learned about in my entire career.” In Australia, which has the best-managed reefs in the world, the Institute of Marine Science conducts continuous monitoring to document these changes.


If only those were the only problems. In many areas, coral reefs that are unprotected or inadequately protected are being harvested. In Indonesia 10 years ago, the minister of the environment showed me a video taken of poachers applying cyanide to a reef to harvest stunned but living Napoleon wrasse and other delicacies bound for upscale restaurants in Hong Kong and Singapore. Other harvesters are after species of Corallium, the beautiful living red or pink corals that are traded globally. Because the United States imports 60% of that commodity, mainly for use as aquarium decorations, we ought to be pushing to have them listed for sanctions.

Given the reasons for caring about coral and the threats to its survival, it's not surprising that a large number of people and organizations are interested in reef protection. The IYOR has gathered interest and support from many of these. SeaWeb, a long-lived and effective conservation group, has a strategy of teaming with fashion editors and journals to remind everyone that coral is “too precious to wear” as jewelry. Although shallow reefs are the central concern, a symposium at next year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science will address the role of deep-sea corals, species that are under threat from disruption by bottom trawling or other harvesting.

Some good things are happening already. The U.S. House of Representatives passed, on 22 October, the Coral Reef Conservation Act (H.R. 1205). A Senate bill is out of committee. Final legislation should include strict provisions regulating coral trade, and scientists should continue to make recommendations, including supporting a listing of corals under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), denied last year by secret ballot in The Hague. Alas, the next Conference of the Parties to CITES won't happen till 2010.

Scientists meanwhile have some good work to do. Data on monitoring and changes in status, along with modeling predictions of temperature and pH effects, should be brought to governments and the public. The failure to gain a CITES listing through political efforts should be rectified. Finally, the United States could grab the front end of the problem by taking serious steps to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions: the root cause of global warming and the reef problem. Experience suggests that for this, we might have to await an election.

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