NOAA report says US coral reefs ‘fair’ but vulnerable to dire degradation from humans and climate change

The first ever report from the NOAA on the condition of coral reefs issues a dire warning for continued reef health

Graig Graziosi
Friday 13 November 2020 20:34
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The coral reefs in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans were given a "fair" score on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's first ever status report detailing the conditions of US reefs.

The NOAA and the University of Maryland Centre for Environmental Science compiled the report, which was released Thursday.

Though the report lists the reefs as fair, it does warn that the reefs are both in a state of decline and are vulnerable to further degradation.

The data was collected between 2012 and 2018, and scored the coral using four categories: corals and algae abundance, reef fish populations, influence of climate on the reefs and human connections to the reefs.

The categories were ranked from "very good" for positive outlooks and "impaired" or "critical" for struggling reefs.

The report found that coral reefs that are closer to higher-density human populations are degraded, likely resulting from local stressors, which includes land-based sources of pollution and damage from fishing.

Retired Navy Rear Admiral Tim Galludet, the assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator said that addressing those issues will be critical to diverting potential economic harm resulting from further reef destruction.

"Considering the more than $3.4 billion in annual economic benefits of coral reefs, these reports and the policy actions that they will inform are critical to our American Blue Economy,” he said.

The report names climate change as the chief threat to coral reefs. Warmer, more acidic sea water is hurting reefs across the globe.

Heath Kelsey, the director of UMCES's Integration and Application Network said the university's work has found reefs are extremely vulnerable to a number of human and climate-driven sources of degradation.

“These status reports clearly show the impacts people are having on coral reef ecosystems,” he said. "“Our work in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans shows a dire outlook for coral reef ecosystem health, from warming ocean waters, fishing, disease, and pollution from the land. Of all of these, climate change is the single biggest threat to shallow water coral reefs in the U.S., and worldwide."

The report names reefs off the Florida coast the country's most degraded, stating there is possibly as little as two per cent remaining intact.

Waters off of South Florida, from the Keys to the north of Palm Beach, are where the most at-risk US reefs are located. That region is also home to one of the densest population centres in the US, with more than 9 million people residing along the coast.

Reefs are central to the maintenance of a health marine ecosystem. They provide natural barriers to storm surges - especially in regions prone to hurricanes - and provide habitats for numerous sea creatures.

Healthy reefs are also critical to coastal economies that depend on tourism, commercial fishing and marine aquaculture. Any industry that relies on the continued health of the sea relies in part on the continued health of coral reefs.

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