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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


December 2007

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Bytes of Note - Coral Reefs: Indicators, Threats, and Conservation Resources

Coral reef ecosystems sustain some of the most biodiverse living communities known on Earth. In addition, they support fisheries, provide nurseries for many migratory pelagic species, draw tourists to tropical countries, and protect shorelines from storm surges and erosive breakers. The high levels of genetic diversity in these ecosystems has also garnered interest for their potential in pharmaceutical research and development. The United Nations Coral Reef Unit encapsulated key information on the benefits of healthy reef ecosystems at, while general information can be found on the UN Atlas of the Oceans (search “coral reefs”). The World Resources Institute attempts to quantify the economic benefits of reefs at

Corals are marine animals in the phylum Cnidaria, which includes jellyfish and sea anemones. Corals that generate hard skeletons are in the order Scleractinia, the colonial types of which can ultimately form the structures known as coral reefs. Healthy coral reefs are intensely productive but also highly sensitive ecosystems; their main threat can be generalized as habitat degradation. A primary indicator of a coral reef in trouble is “bleaching.” When coral become stressed, they tend to expel the single-celled symbiotic photosynthetic organisms that give them their color. Factors that stress corals include ocean acidification due to higher levels of atmospheric CO2 , ocean warming, as well as more direct human impacts such as destructive fishing practices and runoff from land-based sources of pollution. In large part, pollution impacts are due to coastal planning, development, and management practices that do not consider the effects on nearshore environments. The National Center for Coral Reef Research offers an educational game about reef management that demonstrates some of the interactions between shore and reef.

Although not all coral reefs are in marine protected areas (MPAs), many tropical MPAs are created because they are reef rich. MPA News contains an article on reefs in almost every issue. To find a list of resources about reef conservation, MPA manager tools, and relevant articles about reefs, see The Marine Conservation Biology Institute, which is active in reef legislation and policy advocacy, provides on its Web site an interactive map of U.S. territorial waters with general regional information about each area, including several MPAs. The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Department of the Interior jointly maintain a site containing charters, news, and other information on federal guidelines for U.S. MPAs.

NOAA has shown a special interest in consolidating information on reefs. Its main Web page on coral reefs features the latest news on conferences, policy and scientific publications, and funding opportunities and links to one of the most complete reef glossaries. NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch allows visitors to observe sea surface temperatures (SSTs) that may indicate where bleaching events may occur, offering “near real time” maps of SSTs and SST anomalies. A related site shows ocean hot spots, where users can click on regions and discover current sea surface temperature anomalies for those areas. NOAA has also set up a Coral Health and Monitoring Program and a forecasting and observation network specifically for reefs on an interactive map. The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force is also active in building partnerships and strategies for on-the-ground action to conserve coral reefs. A brief history and overview of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s involvement with coral reef conservation efforts, both nationally and internationally, is available at

Other governments that harbor reefs in their waters have also joined the conservation effort, recognizing the need to work globally to protect these systems. The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) has been a main component in providing a forum for governments, NGOs, and international organizations on reef issues. The International Coral Reef Action Network is a joint initiative by several ICRI partners with the intent to spread “good practices of coral reef management and conservation” and is supported by the United Nations, which also has a coral reef program through the UN Environment Programme.

Reef monitoring has become a hot topic over the past two decades because too little is known about the characteristics of a healthy or even sustainable reef. Because reefs do not lend themselves to a “one-size-fits-all” global standard, efforts toward this goal have resulted in several regional approaches. The Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment monitors U.S. reefs. The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment covers the Western Atlantic. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network focuses on the Pacific. The Coral Reef Monitoring Network provides a consolidated clickable list of monitoring efforts worldwide.

The second International Year of the Reef (IYOR) begins in 2008 to raise awareness, disseminate news, organize events, promote action, and develop long-term commitments to coral reef conservation. The previous IYOR, 1997, resulted in a few well-established public participatory ecosystem monitoring programs such as Reef Check and the Reef Environmental Education Network. Although the scientific rigor of these surveys remains unresolved, these programs have been invaluable in increasing public awareness and stewardship of reefs.

The largest scholarly reef organization is the International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS). ISRS publishes the peer-reviewed scientific journal Coral Reefs (table of contents available here). The other major journal that reef researchers cannot do without is the Smithsonian Institution’s Atoll Research Bulletin. Several organizations also consolidate reef information. ReefBase has searchable data, maps of reef areas around the world, and linked articles. Their ReefGIS page features a searchable index to maps of coral bleaching , while a list of bleaching indices by region or country can be found here. An interactive coral disease mapping tool provides a searchable list of diseases observed during research surveys. The Census of Marine Life and the Coral Reef Alliance have links to a wide variety of maps, ongoing projects, and educational materials. The Pew Institute for Ocean Science’s “Reefs of Hope” project studies reefs in the context of global change.

Conservation groups that have made significant progress in reef-rich regions include the Nature Conservancy and the Ocean Conservancy, which has adopted reefs as one of its main issues. Reef Relief is a well-established grassroots organization that also features education, advocacy, and outreach as its main component. The Wildlife Conservation Society has an active marine program and, although mainly known for their management of New York area parks, has made its mark by partnering with marine researchers and labs all over the globe. The Reef Ball Foundation has dedicated itself to the development of artificial reefs made from concrete, which provide fish habitat and coral transplantation surfaces.

A few additional online reef publications deserve special mention: these include the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s Status of Coral Reefs, the World Resources Institute’s Reefs at Risk series, and The Silent Sentinels.  This last publication, produced by researchers at the University of Salzburg, Austria, can easily serve as a foundation for college-level reef ecology. For grade-school educational materials, see the education division of NOAA’s National Ocean Service and the Coral Literature and Education Network.

BARBIE BISCHOF is a doctoral student in the Department of Geography at Florida State University. Her work focuses on social constructions of marine science and conservation issues, particularly coral reefs, fisheries, and oceanography.

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