In a recent press release the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the first-ever condition status report for U.S. coral reefs was recently released by NOAA and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). This is the first time coral reefs in all U.S. states and territories have been assessed using standardized monitoring data, creating datasets that offer a baseline of coral health on a national scale.
Coral Reefs are underwater ridges created by a colonial organism called coral as it builds its own protective housing. They provide shelter, breeding grounds, and nursery habitat for many ocean inhabitants including ecologically and economically important species. They have one of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet and protect shores from storms.
Over the past three decades, coral reefs in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean have been damaged by diseases, storms and coral predators as well as ocean warming, pollution and ocean acidification. Warm ocean temperatures have bleached out the coral and additional ecological decline has caused sea urchins and plant eating reef fish to vanish to be replaced by snails and worms that bore through coral skeletons. Reefs around the globe are being degraded by overfishing, pollution and coastal development. Many reefs are in decline with losses of up to 90 percent for some species.
The NOAA/UMCES report was based on four categories when assigning a score: corals and algae abundance, reef fish populations, influence of climate on coral reefs, and human connections to reefs.
While the overall scores were “fair,” the report highlights coral reefs are vulnerable and declining. This is the first time coral reefs in all U.S. states and territories have been assessed using standardized monitoring data, creating datasets that offer a baseline of coral health on a national scale.
“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,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator.
“To conserve and restore coral reefs, we need to understand the overall condition of these ecosystems,” said Jennifer Koss, director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program. “This report represents a snapshot of reef condition and is a great resource for communities and decision-makers throughout the nation. We hope the report starts a dialogue about the various factors and potential solutions to the threats affecting coral reefs.”
“These status reports clearly show the impacts people are having on coral reef ecosystems,” said Heath Kelsey, director of UMCES’s Integration and Application Network. “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.”
Photo courtesy of NOAA