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Published on September 8th, 2012 | by James Ayre

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Caribbean Coral Reefs Are Mostly Dead, IUCN Says

The coral reefs of the Caribbean have, to put it bluntly, completely collapsed. Overfishing and climate change are the primary causes according to a new report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
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In the most comprehensive study yet of Caribbean coral reefs, scientists have discovered that the 50 to 60 percent coral cover present in the 1970s has plummeted to less than 10 percent.

“I’m sad to tell you it’s a dire picture,” Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, said at a news briefing Friday at the World Conservation Congress in Jeju Island, South Korea.

One of the main forces that set this decline into motion was the massive die-off of sea urchins in the 1970s, which was possibly caused by human introduced disease. “Without these reef grazers—the ‘cows in the field’ that keep vegetation in check—the number of algae and grasses have skyrocketed, dominating reefs and pushing corals aside,” Lundin said.

“What’s more, overfishing of grazer species such as parrotfish or surgeonfish is allowing more algae to take over and outcompete the coral, said Ameer Abdulla, IUCN senior advisor on Marine Biodiversity and Conservation Science.”

“Coral reef communities are just like human communities—there are different roles that are fundamental to keeping the system going,” Abdulla said.

“For example, if all the engineers were taken out of a human society, that would affect how the society functions.”

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“The same phenomenon is happening with the loss of the Caribbean’s grazers, he said.”

“The scientists also said that warmer water—often caused by hurricanes blowing through—have harmed reefs. When the water gets too hot, algae that live inside coral, called zooxanthellae—abandon their hosts, causing the coral themselves to bleach and eventually die.”

“Though some reefs can bounce back from such periods of warmer water, notably in the Indian Ocean, we have heating happening with much higher frequency and for longer duration,” Lundin told National Geographic News.

“For instance, some 500-to-a-thousand-year-old corals in the Indian Ocean have died due to warmer water.”

“We know with some certainty we haven’t had this happen for a thousand years, that’s a clear indication that something’s afoot,” Lundin said.

“For those that are very skeptical of what’s happening with climate change, I would say reality is not in their favor.”

“Corals are vital for many reasons, from boosting tourism dollars to local communities and even buffeting islands themselves from powerful storm surges,” Lundin said.

“The good news is that there are ways to protect the remaining 10 percent of Caribbean corals.”

“The urgency of improving management is certainly there—our message is we need to encourage the people who are the custodians of the resources to take charge. We do know a lot about what one can do,” said Lundin.

“For instance, putting in place marine protected areas can reduce the pressure of overfishing. Governments can also work with local fishers to maintain their livelihoods, for instance by raising the value of individual fish so that the fishers catch fewer animals.”

The stark truth of it is that “the Caribbean system is (just) one of (the) first systems to experience collapse—it’s something that will happen across the globe if human use of coral reefs continues as it is.”

Source: IUCN and National Geographic

Image Credits: Baums lab/Penn State University




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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • stephen

    Sadly I lived in the US Virgin Islands in the late 70′s through early 90′s and love to dive and snorkel. I went back there in 2008, it was all dead, I was shocked. It looked like a moonscape with some dead coral and a few fish left. No serious life. Sadly this was in St. John in a reef sanctuary.

  • Unity5

    Everything we try to fix externally including the climate will result in unintended consequences that may be worse than what we originally tried to “fix”. The program of nature has changed. We can no longer go on consuming as much as we want. But the part we don’t get, is that nature is demanding that we change internally. Right now, the crises we feel in every area of life, is because our desire is opposed to the quality of nature. Nature wants to give, and create harmony. While we want to take, resulting in lack of harmony. If you are interested in learning more, check out http://www.mutualresponsibility.org

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