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WRI Warns of Threats to Coral Reefs at Capitol Hill Ocean Week

Despite their benefits to national economies, reefs around the world are at risk, including in the United States.

Last Wednesday, WRI participated in Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW), a premier conference held annually in Washington, DC that brings together Members of Congress and Congressional staff, federal, state, and local government institutions, and experts from many different backgrounds to discuss current coastal and ocean issues.

The theme of this year’s event was “American Prosperity and Global Security: Ocean Solutions for the 21st Century.” The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation holds the event each year in conjunction with World Oceans Day, June 8th. This year, the event could not have been timelier. On June 2, President Obama declared June as National Ocean Month, and last week the White House’s National Ocean Council released nine draft action plans to serve as a foundation for implementing the U.S.’s first National Ocean Policy.

As part of a CHOW panel titled “How Dramatic are the Demands of a Changing Ocean?”, I delivered a global perspective on the threats to the world’s coral reefs based on WRI’s recent report Reefs at Risk Revisited. I emphasized the important ecosystem services that coral reefs provide to people in the U.S. and around the world, and the benefits of reefs to national economies. These include revenue from tourism (95 countries and territories benefit from reef-related tourism); shoreline protection (coral reefs protect 150,000 km of shorelines around the world, helping to defend against storm surges and beach erosion); and food security (a healthy reef can yield between 5 and 15 tons of fish and seafood per square kilometer per year).

I also relayed the major findings of Reefs at Risk Revisited: that 75% of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by local human activities and past stresses from coral bleaching, and these threats will be exacerbated in the future by ocean warming and acidification caused by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

In line with the symposium’s theme of American Prosperity and Global Security, I presented estimates of threats to coral reefs that are located within U.S. states and territories. The United States has jurisdiction over more than 14,000 sq km of coral reefs in about a dozen territories in the Pacific Ocean. Because many reefs within these states and territories, which include Hawaii and the Marshall Islands, are remote from dense populations, their reefs are at relatively low risk compared to others in the world. Overfishing is the greatest threat, affecting about 25% of U.S. Pacific reefs, followed by coastal development, which threatens about 15%. In total, we estimate that about 30% of reefs in the U.S. Pacific are threatened by local human activities.

In contrast, a much higher percentage of coral reefs in the U.S. Atlantic are significantly threatened. About 2,000 sq km of coral reefs are located within five U.S. Atlantic states and territories (Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Navassa Island). More than 80% of these reefs are threatened by marine-based pollution and damage (such as shipping traffic, waste from ports, and oil infrastructure) and about 60% are threatened by overfishing. All of the U.S. Atlantic’s coral reefs are considered threatened by at least one local activity.

At stake are the important ecosystem services that these coral reefs provide. Degradation of reefs exposes our shorelines to greater storm surges, diminishes economic returns from tourism and fisheries, and jeopardizes our food security.

What we need is a greatly expanded and more concerted effort to reduce local pressures on coral reefs. Such actions include increased coverage of marine protected areas, sustainable coastal construction with more effort devoted to long-term planning, and more analysis of the tradeoffs between investing small amounts of capital in reef management today, versus having to invest much greater amounts in the future to restore and replace lost ecosystem services. We also need to address the global threats to coral reefs from ocean warming and acidification by taking actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Regional Ecosystem Protection and Restoration strategic action plan, proposed as part of the National Ocean Policy, specifically addresses mitigating local impacts to coral reef ecosystems and is a step in the right direction. Federally-funded strategic mitigation actions will buy us time until we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and will help reefs stay resilient in the face of climate change. To revisit the theme of the CHOW panel, it’s clear that the dramatic changes we're seeing in the ocean are demanding this response from us.

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