World's 10 Richest Reefs Hammered by Humans

WASHINGTON, DC, February 21, 2002 (ENS) - Fishing with explosives and poison, overfishing, sedimentation and pollution from activities on land are wiping out the world's coral reefs, according to two new reports presented by conservation organizations based in Washington.

reef fish

Corals and reef fish at Coron Island, Busuanga, Philippines (Photo courtesy Scubaventure)
Pressure on the reefs is most intense in the coral triangle formed by Indonesia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and southern Japan.

The Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International reports that biodiversity is rapidly "bleeding away" in the coral reef hotspots, "10 regions exceptionally rich in marine species found nowhere else and also facing extreme threat."

The reefs of the Philippines are the most endangered of the 10 coral reef hotspots, named for the first time in the study published in the February 15 issue of Science magazine.

These 10 hotspots contain just 24 percent of the world’s coral reefs, or 0.017 percent of the oceans, but are inhabited by 34 percent of the hundreds of thousands of endemic marine species.

The list was prepared by a dozen scientists from Harvard, the UK's York University, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Ocean Voice International of Canada, the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum, the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, and the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre.


Waves break over the reef on the island of Sao Tome in the Gulf of Guinea (Photo by Fabien Violas courtesy São Tomé e Príncipe)
The researchers identified global priority areas for coral reef conservation by mapping the geographic ranges of 1,700 species of reef fish, 804 species of coral, 662 species of snail and 69 species of lobster and comparing them to known threats to coral reefs from human impacts.

They identified the 10 coral reef hotspots, ranked by degree of threat, as:

  1. Philippines
  2. The islands of Annobon, Bioco, Sao Tome and Principe in West Africa's Gulf of Guinea,
  3. Sunda Islands of Indonesia
  4. Southern Mascarene Islands, in the Indian Ocean
  5. Eastern South Africa
  6. Northern Indian Ocean
  7. Southern Japan, Taiwan and southern China
  8. Cape Verde Islands
  9. Western Caribbean
  10. Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden

Two of the top three reef hotspots are in Southeast Asia, a result that squares with a separate report from the World Resources Institute issued February 14 that adds to the evidence of damage affecting the coral reefs of Southeast Asia.

"Coral reefs are the cornerstone of the economic and social fabric of Southeast Asia, yet they are the most threatened reefs in the world," said Lauretta Burke, a co-author of "Reefs at Risk in Southeast Asia," published by the World Resources Institute (WRI). The data compiled by 15 scientists presents a "pretty grim," picture, says Burke, but it is intended to provide resource managers and government officials with "the kind of information that they need to effectively manage their coral reefs."

Using sophisticated computer software and a new index of threats, Burke and her co-authors estimate that 88 percent of Southeast Asia's reefs are severely threatened by human activities - overfishing, destructive fishing, and sedimentation and pollution from land based sources.

The WRI report estimates that the sustainable value of Southeast Asia’s coral reef fisheries is US$2.4 billion annually. If ecosystem services like tourism and shoreline protection are included, the value is higher.


Not all Indonesian reefs are destroyed. Relatively pristine reefs ring the island of Hoga in Indonesia's Wakatobi Marine National Park. (Photo courtesy Geography Dept. University of Portsmouth)
The total economic value for Indonesia, with the largest coral reef systems in the region, is estimated at US$1.6 billion annually. The Philippines comes second with an annual estimated value of US$1.1 billion.

The WRI researchers found 64 percent of Southeast Asia’s reefs to be threatened by overfishing. More than 70 percent of the reefs of Cambodia, Japan and the Philippines are overfished.

Just over half the reefs of Southeast Asia are being destroyed by fishing with poison and dynamite. Dynamite is used to stun or kill fish for either food or the tropical fish trade. "The threat is particularly high in the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and in Vietnam. Over two-thirds of the reefs in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan, as well as over 50 percent of those in Indonesia are threatened by destructive fishing," the WRI researchers found.

In addition, sedimentation and pollution associated with coastal development and changes in land use place 37 percent of the region’s reefs at risk.

These findings are confirmed on a regular basis by other coral reef protection organizations. The California based Coral Reef Alliance says the most ecologically important site with soft coral habitats in Thailand's Andaman Sea, Hin Muang Hin Daeng, was damaged in December when dynamite from an illegal and unidentified fishing boat blasted two underwater rocks, each as large as a football field and as tall as a 100 story building.

The Nature Conservancy's Komodo Field Office is part of the group's Indonesia Program. Its personnel patrol Komodo National Park (KNP), located between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores. Established in 1980, the park was declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site in 1986 and has a management unit with 88 staff. But still, its reefs are threatened by destructive fishing methods, including the use of hookah compressors, reef gleaning, fish traps, gillnets and bottom lines.

The organization recommends "banning the use of hookah compressors, which are used in both dynamite and cyanide fishing." But laws already on the books to protect the park are not being enforced partly because the local fisheries service, "feels that the KNP waters are fishing grounds where yields have to be maximiszed." the conservancy says.


Diver photographs corals destroyed by dynamite in American Samoa. (Photo by Nancy Daschbach courtesy NOAA)
All reef protection organizations, including Conservation International and the World Resources Institute, advise that to safeguard coral reefs, protected area networks must be expanded and management improved, requiring political will and financial commitments from governments, private organizations, and the tourism industry.

Development of alternative livelihoods for fishers, and regulation of the $1 billion a year trade in live reef fish will help the reefs survive, the World Resources Institute suggests.

In the Philippines, largest, most species rich, and most endangered of the coral reef hotspots, more than 90 percent of adjacent forests have been logged. Development of many small, community based marine reserves are showing "great promise," but they will need to be larger and have stronger enforcement, says Conservation International.