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Caribbean coral reefs under threat

Latest update : 2008-01-29

The Caribbean's fragile coral reefs were devastated in 2005 by the onslaught of record-high temperatures and 13 hurricanes, putting the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy, according to a UN report released on Monday.

During the last 50 years many Caribbean reefs have lost up to 80 percent of their coral cover, damaging or destroying the main source of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people, said the report, prepared by a team of scientists and experts at the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

The study was jointly sponsored by UNESCO and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

Coral-based ecosystems are extremely sensitive to temperature increases, which have led over the last 50 years to massive bleaching -- affecting up to 95 percent of the reefs around some islands, including the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Cuba, and the French West Indies.

2005 was the warmest year since records were first kept in 1880, and global warming is likely to increase in years to come, climate scientists have warned.

The same year also saw 26 tropical storms severe enough to merit names, including 13 hurricanes that piled on additional damage, according to Clive Wilkinson, who oversaw the research effort.

The loss of coral reefs in not just a disaster for biodiversity, but for local economies as well. The World Resources Institute estimates that the Caribbean region -- host to 10 percent of the world's coral -- stands to lose 95 to 285 million euros (140 to 420 million dollars) annually if current trends continue.

Worldwide, nearly 500 million people depend on healthy coral reefs for sustenance, coastal protection, renewable resources, and tourism. Of those, some 30 million of the world's poorest denizens depend on the reefs for food.

Recent studies have shown that human settlement, especially coastal development and agriculture, poses a major threat to fragile coral ecosystems. Fully two-thirds of the world's coral reefs are at risk, the report said.

The only long term solution for restoring reefs to full health is bringing world temperatures down through a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and curtailing the impact of pollution, the study suggested.

The report marks the beginning of the International Year of the Reef 2008, a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the value of coral reefs and the threats they face.

Date created : 2008-01-29

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