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Hawaiian reef. Image: THE OCEAN AGENCY / CORAL REEF IMAGE BANK
by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer
A new report released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Maryland says that the United States’ coral reefs are in dire circumstances, with some reefs containing only 2% of their former coral population. These underwater ecosystems are crucial to sea life and human life, and have been declining globally as oceans warm. The U.S. is home to many reefs; the report is the first-ever assessment of all the nation’s coral reefs, including those in Hawaii, Guam, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Why This Matters: Coral reefs are essential to coastal communities’ economy and safety. These communities rely on reefs to sustain tourism, marine aquaculture, and fishing. Retired Navy Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, an assistant secretary at NOAA explains, “the economic impacts of coral reefs in the United States are around $3.4 billion annually. So this is really of great importance to our nation.”
Additionally, healthy reefs can act as a buffer against flooding from hurricanes in storm-prone areas like the gulf coast. As hurricanes grow more severe and reefs decline due to rising ocean temperatures, coastal communities will be facing greater disasters with less protection. Already, hurricanes and coastal flooding have led to housing crises in those regions, and without taking swift action to limit global warming, it will only continue to get worse.
The report collected data from 2012 to 2018 and designated regions as “very good,” “good,” “fair,” “impaired,” and “critical.” While most of the regions surveyed were evaluated as “fair,” researchers noted an abundance of potentially catastrophic threats to reef survival. Sewage, fertilizer and pesticide runoff, and other pollutants that flow into the oceans were identified as primary threats.
Reefs in Southern Florida face the highest threat level. Populations in the region were evaluated as “impaired,” with some down to just 2% of previous numbers. Researchers say this is unsurprising due to the population density of the region which is home to 9 million people.
The Battle for Protections: Some coral populations have managed to gain federal protection. In October, the federal government granted protections to 500 square miles of deep-sea coral in the Gulf of Mexico. The protected habitats stretch across 13 reef sites from Texas to the Florida Keys and contain fish valued by commercial fishermen.
On the other hand, last year, the City of Key West voted to ban certain sunscreens with chemicals that could further damage the “impaired” coral reefs, which the region relies on for tourism. Sunscreens that contain octinoxate and oxybenzone can wash off of beachgoers’ skin and flow into reefs where they accelerate coral bleaching. In a devastating blow to conservationists, the Florida legislature struck down the ban this past March.
Ultimately, researchers believe that warming ocean temperatures are the number one threat to coral reefs. The new report’s authors want these results to be a call to action. “This report represents a snapshot of reef condition and is a great resource for communities and decision-makers throughout the nation. We hope the report starts a dialogue about the various factors and potential solutions to the threats affecting coral reefs,” said Jennifer Koss, the director of NOAA’s coral reef conservation program. Their hope might not be in vain; legislators from Hawaii and Florida have recently co-sponsored a bill that would approve federal funding for the protection and rehabilitation of the nation’s reefs.
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