Saturday, March 31, 2012

Overfishing, deforestation and climate change cause declines in Caribbean coral reefs

Science Codex: The decline of Caribbean coral reefs has been linked to the recent effects of human-induced climate change. However, new research led by scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego suggests an even earlier cause. The bad news – humans are still to blame. The good news – relatively simple policy changes can hinder further coral reef decline.

Employing a novel excavation technique to reconstruct the timeline of historical change in coral reefs located on the Caribbean side of Panama, a team of scientists led by Scripps alumna Katie Cramer and current Scripps Professor of Oceanography and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Emeritus Staff Scientist Jeremy Jackson has determined that damage to coral reefs from land clearing and overfishing pre-dates damage caused by anthropogenic climate change by at least decades.

"This study is the first to quantitatively show that the cumulative effects of deforestation and possibly overfishing were degrading Caribbean coral and molluscan communities long before climate change impacts began to really devastate reefs," said lead author Cramer, currently based at the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Coral reefs have suffered alarmingly since the 1980s due to coral bleaching and coral disease, thought to stem from the warming of the oceans due to anthropogenic, or human-induced, climate change. However, until recently, the impact of prior human activities on Caribbean coral reefs had not been studied with experimental techniques.

Historical records and qualitative surveys provide hints that declines in corals in some parts of the Caribbean occurred as far back as the early 1900s after coastal lands began to be cleared to make way for plantations. However, the current study is the first to quantify the changes that reef corals and mollusks have undergone as a result of long-term stress caused by the deposition of silt, nutrients, and pollution onto coral reefs from land clearing and the depletion of reef fish that prevent algae from overtaking reefs...

Fish and coral, shot by Maniacduhockey, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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