Overfishing and climate change have led to the almost complete collapse of the Caribbean’s coral reefs, it was revealed at the 2012 World Conservation Congress, which took place this week in South Korea. The director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Carl Gustaf Lundin, described the situation as ‘dire,’ as the astounding figures were exposed: whilst surveys recorded in the 1970s showed an average of 60 per cent live coral cover across the Caribbean’s reefs, current records show a drastic decline, with only 8 per cent of the entire Caribbean coral reef system showing live cover. It seems that over-exploitation, pollution and climate change have driven one of the world’s most striking natural ecosystems to the point of collapse.
One of the major causes of the decline of the Caribbean coral reefs is the burning of fossil fuels, as the resultant rise in temperature causes coral bleaching. Much of the decline may be attributed to the introduction of disease – by mankind or other means – during the 1970s, which led to a huge decline in the numbers of sea urchins in the reefs. Without these organisms, which serve as ‘grazers’ and prevent vegetation from overgrowing, algae and sea grasses have been able to dominate reefs and push coral aside. On top of this, the overfishing of grazer species of fish, such as the parrotfish, which feed on algae and maintains vegetation in a similar way to the sea urchins, has resulted in algae and weeds outcompeting and taking over the coral.
The human impact on the coral reefs does not end there – some scientists go as far as to suggest that even the suncream we use is damaging. Travellers release up to 6000 tons of suncream into reef areas each year, including ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which can be harmful to sea life and coral reefs.
There are those who would suggest that the collapse of the Caribbean’s coral reefs is down to natural causes, though the evidence points towards the contrary – given that areas less exposed to human contact, such as the Netherlands Antilles and the Cayman Islands, have been affected much less, with up to 30 per cent live coral cover, it seems that mankind must take some responsibility for the coral decline.
The effects of the coral reef collapse are likely to be widespread, impacting upon the Caribbean’s ecosystems, ecology and economy. Coral reefs act as nurseries for younger fish; as the coral dies, so does the marine ecosystem. Coral reefs are also a tourist attraction, and an important source of income for Caribbean communities, and the collapse is likely to hit local coastal villages quite harshly. The IUCN warns that the same phenomenon could happen across the globe if the reefs continue to be treated in the current fashion.
This does not mean, however, that the complete and total breakdown of the Caribbean’s coral reef system is inevitable: there are thankfully still ways of protecting the remaining live reefs. The IUCN, at the World Conservation Congress, called for swift measures to be taken to save the Caribbean’s remaining reefs, as well as reefs across the globe. The organisation called for governments to work with local fishermen to limit fishing quotas, whilst raising the price of individual fish, to prevent overfishing, as well as calling for measures to prevent the run-off of fertilizers from coastal farmland into the sea. The collapse of the Caribbean coral reef is perhaps the first case of its kind, but this does not necessarily mean it is the last case we will see.
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