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Coral Reef Vacations May Become a Thing of the Past

WWF Highlights Top Destroyers, Urgently Needed Solutions

Washington - Finding Nemo may be more of a challenge as tropical coral reefs fight to survive assaults by their most formidable foes: humans. According to a major report released today, the Status of Coral Reefs of the World 2004, pressures on reefs from natural predators appear to have stabilized, but human encroachments have escalated, vividly degrading ocean floor topography around the world.

"As Americans travel to tropical vacation spots, they are going to have more trouble finding plentiful corals and fish while scuba diving," said Dr. Helen Fox, WWF's senior marine conservation scientist. "First-time divers might not recognize the dramatic changes to the reefs they're exploring, but experienced divers tell us that what they are seeing underwater now pales in comparison to the colorful corals and abundant marine life that existed when they started diving."

Among the top threats listed by the Status report, and confirmed by WWF scientists in the field, are: destructive fishing practices (e.g., fishing with homemade bombs or cyanide), overfishing, climate change (and subsequent coral bleaching), land-based pollution, overdevelopment of shorelines, rising poverty and growing population levels.

In places like Indonesia, for example, poor fishermen use illegal, cheap explosives to stun and capture large quantities of fish, but the explosives shatter the coral reefs those fish need for food and shelter. Many groups are working with fishermen there to reduce the damaging effects of such fishing and to restore reef ecosystems, many of which are at the point of collapse. Field experiments in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Indonesia's Komodo National Park show that, four years after rock piles were installed at nine sites, hard coral had grown or attached itself to the rock and created new reefs.

"There is some progress being made and we want to capitalize on that," Fox said. "But with more than half of the world's tropical coral reefs now endangered or destroyed, the report today highlights how much work we have ahead of us to ensure the world has healthy reefs in the future."

WWF is working in countries such as Mozambique and Belize to create marine protected areas - the equivalent of ocean-based national parks - where reefs and marine life can recover from damage without any fishing or other human activities harming them.

"There is a special need to assist poor communities with alternative economic activities and decrease their need to damage reef resources," Fox said. "The governments of developing countries need help with financial and human resources to conserve their coral reefs, which support millions and are part of the world's heritage."

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Editor's Notes:
The complete Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2004 can be found at http://www.aims.gov.au/pages/research/coral-bleaching/scr2004/index.html.

Top Ten Threats to Reefs:

Global Change Threats
1. Coral bleaching - caused by rising sea temperatures from global climate change
2. Rising levels of CO2 - dissolved in seawater, this will reduce coral calcification
3. Diseases, plagues and invasives - all cause damage and are linked to human disturbance

Direct Human Pressures
4. Overfishing (and destructive fishing) - bomb and cyanide fishing, and fishing beyond sustainable yields, destroys reefs
5. Sediments - from poor land use, deforestation and dredging smother corals
6. Nutrients and chemical pollution - carried with sediments, sewage/industry wastes stress corals
7. Development on coasts - dredging, land-clearing, building ports, airports and harbors

The Human Dimension - Governance, Awareness and Political Will
8. Rising poverty and growing populations - all put more pressures on reef resources beyond sustainability
9. Poor management capacity - many countries have few trained personnel and equipment for management
10. Poor political will - coral reef solutions require strong political will and governance of resources

Coral reefs and their rich stores of biodiversity provide food, sources of rock and sand, coastal protection, cultural items, a rich potential for new pharmaceuticals and enormous current at future economic returns from well managed tourism. Healthy, growing coral reefs will also reduce the impacts of rising sea levels for many low-lying coral reef countries. Coral reefs are also important as part of our global natural heritage, and it is our collective responsibility to conserve them so that we can bequeath healthy reefs to future generations.