Bringing Coral Reefs Back From the Living Dead

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Science  31 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5940, pp. 559-561
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_559

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The world's embattled coral reefs provide habitat for some 9 million species, including 4000 kinds of fish. Roughly 100 million people in developing countries depend on reefs for subsistence fishing and tourism, estimates the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The "rainforests of the sea," however, are threatened by human activity and natural disasters. About 19% of our planet's original global coral reef area has been destroyed; another 15% could be lost in the next 2 decades, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network's Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008. As losses mount, restoration projects are only just getting off the ground. The immediate challenge, researchers say, is to show that promising techniques can be scaled up. That will require resources that are by no means guaranteed: A good share of recent restoration projects has been funded by GEF's Coral Reef Targeted Research program, which ends this year. Some experts are skeptical that restoration can make much of a difference. Healthy reefs lightly disturbed by humans typically recover from bleaching and natural disasters on their own. But reefs pummeled by pollution, destructive fishing practices, or land reclamation are often pushed beyond recovery by bleaching or storms.