Human activities threaten Caribbean coral reefs

Posted: 21 October 2004

Two-thirds of coral reefs in the Caribbean are threatened by human activities, warn conservation scientists.

The reefs are suffering from four main threats, including sewage discharge from coastal developments, water-based sediment and pollution from agricultural fertilisers, marine pollution such as cruise ships discharges, and over-fishing. "We estimate that two-thirds of the region's reefs are threatened from these direct human pressures," said Lauretta Burke, lead author of the report, Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean by the World Resources Institute.

Additional threats of coral bleaching from warming oceans, coral disease from new pathogens, and damage from hurricanes and tropical storms are increasing the risk to reefs, warns the report.

"Human activity has undermined the health and vitality of reefs. The coral reefs I observed in the 1940s are totally different today. Sadly, none has changed for the better," wrote noted filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau in the preface to Reefs at Risk.

Shoreline protection

The report estimates that in 2000 Caribbean reefs provided a number of goods and services from fisheries, dive tourism, fisheries, to shoreline protection, worth between US$3.1 and 4.6 billion.

Coral reefs are a vital component of coastal defense against the ravages of storms and hurricanes, but their increased frequency today means that reefs are taking a further battering.

"When reefs get knocked down, the cost to people is dramatic," said Jon Maidens, co-author of the report. "If coral reefs are lost, replacing such natural protection by artificial means would cost coastal communities millions of dollars."

When hurricanes arrive in the region, Florida and the Caribbean nations are protected by reefs because of their ability to dissipate wave and storm energy. The report estimates that Caribbean coral reefs - an of more than 10,000 square miles (26,000 sq kilometers) - provide shoreline protection from natural Caribbean reefs at a value of US$700 million and US$2.2 billion per year, says the report.

The continuing degradation of the region's coral reefs could reduce net annual revenues from dive tourism estimated at US$2.1 billion in 2000, by as much as US$300 million per year by 2015.

The report includes detailed mapping of these threats to help local, national and international organisations in setting priorities for conservation and natural-resource management.

"Actions to reverse the threats to Caribbean coral reefs can often be undertaken at very low cost, with very high financial and societal returns, even in the short term," Maidens added.

Related links:

Order the report: Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean

News: Coral nears the crisis point