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Scientists send coral reef plea to Australia


    In this May, 2016 photo provided by XL Catlin Global Reef Record, decomposing coral is shown on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. As the worlds largest gathering of coral reef experts comes to a close, scientists and policy makers are moving ahead with plans for action to save the worlds imperiled reefs.

As the largest international gathering of coral reef experts comes to a close, scientists have sent a letter to Australian officials calling for action to save the world’s reefs, which are being rapidly damaged.

The letter was sent Saturday to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull imploring his government to do more to conserve the nation’s reefs and curb fossil fuel consumption.

The letter, signed by past and present presidents of the International Society for Reef Studies on behalf of the 2,000 attendees of the International Coral Reef Symposium that was held in Honolulu this week, urged the Australian government to prioritize its Great Barrier Reef.

“This year has seen the worst mass bleaching in history, threatening many coral reefs around the world including the whole of the northern Great Barrier Reef, the biggest and best-known of all reefs,” the letter said. “The damage to this Australian icon has already been devastating. In addition to damage from greenhouse gasses, port dredging and shipping of fossil fuels across the Great Barrier Reef contravene Australia’s responsibilities for stewardship of the Reef under the World Heritage Convention.”

Leaders from the scientific community at the convention in Honolulu said Friday that the “unprecedented” letter was critical to the conservation of the fragile reef habitat.

Scientists are not known for their political activism, said James Cook University professor Terry Hughes, but they felt this crisis warranted such action.

“We are not ready to write the obituary for coral reefs,” said Hughes, who is also the president of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia.

A call to action from three Pacific island nations whose reefs are in the crosshairs of the largest and longest-lasting coral bleaching event in recorded history was presented Friday at the conclusion of the International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu. The Associated Press was given advance access to the call for action and the scientific community’s response.

The heads of state from Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands attended the conference and will provide a plan to help save their ailing coral reefs, which are major contributors to their local economies and the daily sustenance of their people. The call to action, signed by the three presidents, asked for better collaboration between the scientific community and local governments, saying there needs to be more funding and a strengthened commitment to protecting the reefs.

“If our coral reefs are further degraded, then our reef-dependent communities will suffer and be displaced,” the letter said. They also called for more integration of “traditional knowledge, customary practices and scientific research” in building a comprehensive coral reef policy.

In response to the letter, the scientific community at the conference said: “We pledge to take up the 13th ICRS Leaders’ Call to Action, and will work together with national leaders of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the world to curb the continued loss of coral reefs.”

Bleaching is a process where corals, stressed by hot ocean waters and other environmental changes, lose their color as the symbiotic algae that lives within them is released. Severe or concurrent years of bleaching can kill coral reefs, as has been documented over the past two years in oceans around the world. Scientists expect a third year of bleaching to last through the end of 2016.

In the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef, close to half of the corals have died in the past three months, said Hughes, who focuses his research there. The area of the reef that suffered most is extremely remote, he said, with no pollution, very little fishing pressure and no coastal development.

“That’s an absolute catastrophe,” Hughes said. “There’s nowhere to hide from climate change.”

But the panel of scientists emphasized the progress they have made over the past 30 years and stressed that good research and management programs for coral reefs are available. The scientists said they just need the proper funding and political will to enact them.

The researchers focused on the economic and social benefits coral reefs contribute to communities across the globe, saying the critical habitats generate trillions of dollars annually but conservation efforts are not proportionately or adequately funded.

In the United States, the budget for the federal coral reef conservation program is set at about $27 million a year, said Bob Richmond, director of the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory and convener of this year’s International Coral Reef Symposium.

In Hawaii, he said, the reefs are valued at $34 billion, and the return to the state’s economy is about $360 million annually — meaning the entire nation’s budget for coral reef conservation is less than 10 percent of the annual return in that one state alone.

Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands also have ailing reefs under the budget.

The Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000, which aimed to protect coral reefs and create programs to manage their conservation, has been plagued by political resistance and a severe lack of funding, said Robert Richmond, former president of the International Society for Reef Studies.

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  • “In Hawaii, he said, the reefs are valued at $34 billion, and the return to the state’s economy is about $360 million annually ”

    I’d like to know how this valuation is calculated, and what is the “return” to the state’s economy that would not happen if the reefs were dead but still present as breakwaters.

    • I suppose they are referring to fishing, but maybe it includes recreation and…well, it’s just a good question. How about it, Advertiser, what do those figures represent?

      BTW, your example of breakwater protection is a great benefit I hadn’t thought of. If the coral die, I suppose the reefs world be battered by the waves and eventually disappear. It is their constant replenishment that makes them so valuable.

  • Reducing greenhouse gases is just a gratuitous environmental movement, since greenhouse gases are combined together in the atmosphere by everybody that produces them and each country is not affected by its own greenhouse gases. The U.S., China and a bunch of industrialized countries contribute more.

    • Hawaii produces more that its share with the volcanoes. Let’s pass a law…………………..! Look at the four engines on AF ONE??? And HE doesn’t do as he says!!!

  • Maintaining our coral reefs, the base of a huge food web, is a moral issue and should not be reduced to a dollars and cents assessment. What is our natural heritage worth? Millions of years of progressive perfection and diversification. Climate change is real and we need to use that grey stuff between our ears to get things moving in an intelligent direction.

    • Sure thing, leino. Now, since you recognize the problem and the solution, you have the honor of being the first to hand those environmental alarmists your wallet, and then some.

  • Coral bleaching in Australia have been known for a number of years. Due to the large area impacted, it could be difficult to identify cause-and- effect issues. There may well be a good correlation with increasing water temperatures, which probable has been monitored for a number of years. That said, cause>effect relations on this scale could be difficult to confirm. One might also suggest the probability of this happening in Hawaiian waters could be much lower because the the reefs around the islands do not extend far offshore, and, there are deep channels between the islands provide good current flows. Marginal areas like Pearl Harbor might be more vulnerable because of more suspended material in water, and less water exchange.


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