Caribbean Corals in Danger of Extinction

07 June 2007 | International news release

Climate Change, Warmer Waters Cited as Leading Cause

Caribbean coral species are dying off, indicating dramatic shifts in the ecological balance under the sea, a new scientific study of Caribbean marine life shows.

The study found that 10 percent of the Caribbean’s 62 reef-building corals were under threat, including staghorn and elkhorn corals. These used to be the most prominent species but are now candidates to be listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

"One of the Atlantic Ocean's most beautiful marine habitats no longer exists in many places because of dramatic increases in coral diseases, mostly caused by climate change and warmer waters," said Dr. Michael L. Smith, director of the Caribbean Biodiversity Initiative at Conservation International.

A gathering of 23 scientists in Dominica in March 2007 analyzed data on Western Tropical Atlantic corals, seagrasses, mangroves and algae, which are fundamental components of marine ecosystems providing food and shelter for numerous other organisms and local communities.  The study was funded in part by the Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Ocean Fund.

This was the first in a series of Global Marine Species Assessments (GMSA) of key marine primary-producers on a global scale.  The GMSA is headquartered at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, and is a partnership between Conservation International (CI) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).  It aims to dramatically increase the number of marine species assessed under the rigorous criteria of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to provide up-to-date information for marine policy and conservation efforts.

After a final review, the species assessed during the Dominica workshop will be added to the 2008 IUCN Red List.  

“Coral reefs support some of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world. When the coral reefs disappear, so will many other species which rely on reefs for shelter, reproduction and foraging,” said Dr. Suzanne Livingstone, GMSA program officer.

The threats to corals and other marine species include coastal pollution and human development; increased sedimentation in run-off water; thermal stress and heightened severity of hurricanes from climate change; and shifts in species dynamics due to over-fishing, according to the study.  Scientists explained that the Caribbean has undergone the longest and most sustained impacts from human development since the colonization of the Americas.

Next to corals, mangroves appear to be the hardest hit. Mangrove cover in the region has declined by 42% over the past 25 years, with two of the eight mangrove species now considered Vulnerable to extinction and two more in Near Threatened status.

“Mangroves protect shorelines, shelter fish, and filter pollution,” said Aaron Ellison of Harvard University.  “The Caribbean was blessed with an abundance of these useful plants, but the consensus of this workshop is that mangroves are in trouble everywhere and need to be protected and restored,” he added.  Mangrove forests are being cut down to make way for coastal housing, tourism, and aquaculture development.

Beds of sea-grasses in shallow coastal waters, like mangroves, provide a vital nursery habitat for fish, including many commercially important species and are subject to similar threats.  They are in equal need of protection to safeguard the wealth of marine life they support.

Unlike corals, seagrasses and mangroves, Caribbean algae appear to be surviving well and perhaps are taking advantage of the corals’ demise. Algae thrive on dead or dying coral reefs and can overgrow and smother newly settled corals. In addition, the fishes that feed on algae are being overexploited and their reduced populations enable algae to form dense growths that prevent corals from re-colonizing.

The scientists noted that some healthy Caribbean coral reefs still exist in well-managed marine protected areas such as Bonaire Marine Park in the Netherlands Antilles.  Direct human impacts are reduced in these areas allowing most corals to thrive; however, thermal stress from global warming affects all corals in the Caribbean and must be reversed if these refuges of Caribbean beauty are to survive, they added.

“The Caribbean tourism industry relies heavily on the beauty and health of its sea life,” said Dr. Kent Carpenter, GMSA Director.  “Concentrated marine conservation and a global effort to halt man-induced climate change are necessary to preserve this vital economic engine in the region.”

 

Notes to editors

Photos of the surveyed marine life are available at:
http://images.conservation.org/admin/packaging/viewtransmit_ext.aspx?messageId=101089&
userName=gpoggi&session=06f28c25d674d8866ea5c6aace8582ab

For more information or to set up interviews, contact:

Susan Bruce, International Media Relations Director, Conservation International,
sbruce@conservation.org; Tel +1 703-341-2471

Abigail Powell, Communications, IUCN Species Programme, abigail.powell@iucn.org;
Tel: +41 22 999 0154

Conservation International (CI) applies innovations in science, economics, policy and community participation to protect the Earth’s richest regions of plant and animal diversity and demonstrate that human societies can live harmoniously with nature. Founded in 1987, CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents to help people find economic alternatives without harming their natural environments. For more information about CI, visit www.conservation.org.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN)
The World Conservation Union is the world’s largest conservation network. The Union brings together 84 States, 108 government agencies, more than 800 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries in a unique worldwide partnership. The Union’s mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable. The World Conservation Union is a multicultural, multilingual organisation with 1000 staff located in 62 countries. Its headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland. www.iucn.org

The Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA)
The Global Marine Species Assessment began in late 2005 and is based in the Department of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University. This project will be the first global review of the conservation status of every marine vertebrate species, and of selected invertebrates and plants. The project involves a range of partners in compiling and analyzing all existing data on approximately 20,000 marine species, and will determine the risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria. www.sci.odu.edu/gmsa