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Coral Reefs Worldwide Are Threatened By
Tourism Activity, Coastal Development

WASHINGTON, June 23, 1998 -  Nearly 60 percent of the earth's coral reefs are threatened by human activity -- ranging from coastal development and overfishing to inland pollution -- leaving much of the world's marine biodiversity at risk, according to a new study released today.

The study, Reefs at Risk: A Map-Based Indicator of Threats to the World's Coral Reefs, reports that even though reefs provide billions of people and hundreds of countries with food, tourism revenue, coastal protection and new medications for increasingly drug-resistant diseases -- a set of goods and services worth about $375 billion each year -- they are among the least monitored and protected natural habitats in the world.

Released by the Washington, DC-based World Resources Institute, an international organization focusing on issues of the environment and sustainability, Reefs at Risk is the first detailed, map-based global assessment of coral reefs and human-made threats to these ecosystems. These threats are divided into four broad categories: coastal development; overexploitation and destructive fishing practices (including blast and cyanide fishing); impacts from inland pollution and erosion; and marine-based pollution. Key findings of the report include:

Coral reefs of Southeast Asia, the most species-rich on earth, are the most threatened of any region. More than 80 percent are at risk, primarily from coastal development and fishing- related pressures. These reefs are a global center of marine biodiversity, harboring fully a quarter of all the world's fish species.
Most United States reefs are threatened.  Almost all of the reefs off Florida are at risk from a range of factors, including runoff of fertilizers and pollutants from farms and coastal development.  Almost half of Hawaii's reefs are vulnerable, while virtually all of Puerto Rico's reefs are threatened.
Almost two-thirds of Caribbean reefs are in jeopardy.  Most of the reefs on the Antilles chain, including the islands of Jamaica, Barbados, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are at high risk. Reefs off Jamaica, for example, have been ravaged as a result of overfishing and pollution. Many resemble graveyards, algae-covered and depleted of fish.
One fifth of all animal protein consumed by humans comes from the sea. For instance, reefs provide fish and seafood for one billion people in Asia alone, many of them among the planet's most impoverished citizens.
Coral reef species hold promise for scientists seeking new drugs to combat disease.  For instance, according to one estimate, marine species are a major focus of new cancer research.
Overexploitation and coastal development pose the greatest potential threat of the four risk categories considered in this study.

The detailed, map-based analysis included in Reefs at Risk, serves as an indicator of the threats to coral reef ecosystems, not an actual measure of degradation. Until now, the only information on the status of coral reefs worldwide was a 1993 estimate, based on guesswork by a number of scientists, and anecdotal evidence, which indicated that 10 percent of the world's reefs were dead, and 30 percent were likely to die within 10 to 20 years. Using a Geographic Information System (GIS), more than 14 types of global maps, information on 800 sites known to be degraded, and input from top coral reef scientists from around the world to model areas where reef damage is predicted to occur, Reefs at Risk documents that most coral reefs are seriously threatened by human activity.

"Like rainforests, reefs harbor much of the planet's wealth of species and are being rapidly degraded by humans," says WRI Senior Associate and report coauthor Dirk Bryant, "yet we know far less about the health of reefs than we do of rainforests. This study sheds new light on the status of reef ecosystems, and the news is grim." Coauthor Lauretta Burke, also a WRI Senior Associate, adds, "The Reefs at Risk results serve as an indicator of the threats to this vital ecosystem but more study is needed to identify those reefs at greatest risk and to determine the best way to reclaim and protect them."

Given that more than 100 countries stand to benefit from tourism-related recreational value alone provided by their reefs, threats to coral reefs can be devastating. For example, countries in the Caribbean, on average, derive half of their GNP from the tourism industry, valued at $8.9 billion in 1990, and Florida's reefs pump $1.6 billion into the economy each year from tourism alone. Reefs are also a vital source of food for many of the world's developing countries, but in many areas, fishers are depleting this important resource through overexploitation and destructive fishing practices.

What Can Be Done?

The most important actions for promoting healthy coral reef ecosystems depend on efforts by local governments, community groups, environmental organizations and the private sector. Many are win-win solutions: creating marine parks that, in turn, create new jobs; treating sewage before it reaches reefs (which benefits human health), and eliminating costly government subsidies. A well-managed marine protected areas system is one of the most effective approaches for assuring healthy reefs, while generating tourism dollars and maintaining the vitality of nearby fisheries.  This report profiles a series of coral reef management success stories from around the world.  For example:

In Bermuda, fishing pots (a fish trap commonly used to catch reef species) were damaging reef structure. Pressure from hotel owners, dive operators and other businesses influenced the government to close the $2 million pot fishing industry in 1990 (fishers were compensated for the cost of their traps, gear and lost revenue). By protecting the country's coral reefs, Bermuda recognized the importance of its reef-
based tourism and recreational industries -- valued at over $9 million in 1988 -- while benefiting reef biodiversity.
Kenya's Mombasa Marine National Park reefs were threatened by overfishing, destructive fishing practices, organic pollution, sedimentation and tourist damage. Since the government officially made the area a marine park in 1989, management has included patrolling, beach cleaning, regulation of tourist activities and maintenance of moorings.  Surveys have shown a major increase in finfish size, abundance and diversity, and recorded coral cover has increased from 8 percent to 30 percent.

As the report demonstrates, there are solutions that can help assure that reefs at risk today are maintained as healthy ecosystems in the future. What's needed is resources and commitment from governments around the world. There are promising signs that policymakers are waking up to the problem such as President Clinton's pledge of $6 million to restore degraded reefs. WRI's new findings highlight the importance of translating promises into action. As Sylvia A. Earle, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, writes in the foreword to Reefs at Risk: "The fate of coral reefs, the ocean, and humankind forty years from now and forevermore will depend on the intelligence, motivation, and caring of people now alive. In that spirit, this report provides hope that we may succeed."

Reefs at Risk was produced in collaboration with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) in Cambridge, England, the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM) in Manilla, the Philippines, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya. The World Resources Institute (WRI) is a Washington, DC-based center for policy research and technical assistance on global environmental and development issues. It provides objective information and practical proposals for policy change that will foster environmentally sound development. WRI works with institutions in more than 50 countries to bring the insights of scientific research, economic analysis and practical experience to political, business and non-governmental organization leaders globally. For additional information, visit WRI's website at ""

The World Resources Institute
Frank Dexter Brown
Mary Houser

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