Coral Reefs

I. Coral Reef Biology and Threats

Reefs have been called the �tropical rainforests of the ocean� and the comparison is apt. Despite covering only 0.17% of the ocean floor, reefs serve as habitat for up to 25% of all marine species. Scientists have already identified 93,000 species living in coral reefs and estimate as many as one million species have yet to be identified. Not surprisingly, many human communities living near reefs, particularly in the coastal areas of the tropics, depend upon the reefs for food and livelihoods as artisanal fisheries. Coral reefs serve a variety of critical roles in coastal ecosystems. In addition to providing habitat for tremendous biodiversity, they provide habitat for up to 10% of the global fisheries and up to 20-25% of the fish catch of developing countries as well as serving as breakwaters that protect coastlines. Jon R. Luoma, Reef madness: threats to coral ecosystems, Audubon, Nov. 21, 1996; Peter Weber, Coral reefs face the threat of extinction, USA Today Magazine, May, 1993; Charlotte de Fontaubert, David R. Downes, Tundi S. Agardy, Biodiversity in the Seas: Implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity in Marine and Coastal Habitats, IUCN Environmental Policy and Law Paper No. 32, at 38-39 (1996).

Yet coral reefs in 93 countries are under threat from a variety of human activities, ranging from the East Asian Seas and Kenya, to Mozambique, Haiti, Cuba and the U.S. Ten percent of the world�s reefs are already seriously degraded and 30% are seriously threatened. Scientists estimate that without preventative action up to 70% of the world�s coral reefs will be gone within 40 years. There is very little international law explicitly protecting coral reefs, so recent international activity has focused on raising awareness of the issues and promoting local and regional initiatives. Madeline Nash, Wrecking the reefs; coral ecosystems are in desperate trouble all around the world-- and guess who�s to blame, Time, September 30, 1996; Marking the Year of the Reef, The Seattle Times, March 23, 1997.

The coral that build reefs are descendants of sea anemone and jellyfish. The living part of coral is a small polyp that traps food in its fan-like extensions as it passes by in currents. The brilliant color of corals is provided by symbiotic algae which live inside the coral skeleton and convert the coral�s waste (used as phosphorous and nitrogen nutrients) into sugars and starches through photosynthesis. If the algae dies, the coral will die as well. Most of what we think of as coral is, in fact, dead. The part of coral we admire and benefit from is the animal�s limestone shell constructed from carbon and calcium in the seawater. Individual corals build upon each other and their skeletons create structure which over thousands of years develop into reefs extending for miles, providing shelter for entire communities of species.

The threats to coral reef ecosystems are numerous. Some corals are very sensitive to water quality, degraded by unchecked land development and runoff waste from industrial, agricultural, and mining activities. Fertilizer from agriculture and untreated sewage, for example, causes eutrophication which stimulates algae growth, covering the coral and blocking light. Deforestation greatly increases the movement of topsoil into coastal waters which also blocks sunlight from reaching the corals. When the algae die, covered by sediment, so do the corals. Coral reefs of the Philippines have been especially harmed by deforestation, some of its islands losing half the corals following heavy rainfalls. Elliot A. Norse, ed., Global Marine biological Diversity 115 (1993). Vessel and cruise ship anchors also threaten reefs, pulverizing coral and ripping them from their bases. Managing this problem can pose a difficult balance between encouraging marine-based tourism and protecting reefs, particularly in the Caribbean. A related threat comes from mining of coral for use as bleached pebbles and tourist souvenirs.

Reefs in Asia are vulnerable to two local fishing methods, both immensely destructive. �Blast fishing� involves the use of dynamite to stun or kill the fish by shock waves and collecting them as they float to the surface. Fish that are stunned are sold to restaurants that prepare fish live or, more and more, to satisfy the growing worldwide demand for ornamental aquarium fish. Another method uses cyanide poured into the water which also kills and stuns fish. The harmful impact of dynamite blasts and cyanide on coral is obvious, and leads directly to reduced numbers of fish overall since their habitat is degraded. Anthony Spaeth, Reef Killers; the use of toxic cyanide to snag live fish for gourmands in southeast asia is damaging a delicate ocean habitat, Time, June 3, 1996. Even if heavy fishing activity in a reef does not directly damage the coral, overfishing of herbivores such as parrot fish will result in damage because no protection is left against fast-growing seaweed which always threatens to engulf reefs. Indeed, the complexity and interdependencies of a reef ecosystem makes it particularly vulnerable to overexploitation of particular species.

Coral cannot survive high temperatures, nor can they build reefs in water colder than 60 degrees farenheit or in murky depths. This sensitivity to slight changes in water temperature makes global warming and climate change an enormous potential threat. The much-publicized "coral bleaching" is an example of this. Overheated corals release the algae that provide their color, thus exposing the white of the coral skeletons. Many �bleached� reefs can return to their previous state over time if the water cools down, but they will die if the stress is not relieved. The slow growth rate of coral reefs compounds the severity of these many threats. Coral reefs grow no more than 12 meters every 1,000 years, provided the waters remain at the appropriate temperature, are clean and allow light to pass through. Fontaubert and Downes op. cit.; Jon Mitchell, Jewels of the sea fight for survival in fragile ecosystems, The Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 27, 1996.

II. Coral Protection Initiatives

Addressing the threats posed to coral requires two separate areas of action:protection of the reefs themselves and pollution prevention. Domestic law is most effective in addressing these issues. Thus it is not surprising that little international law directly addresses coral reefs. Coral reefs received some attention at the 1992 Earth Summit and were addressed in Chapter 17 of Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development.

Agenda 21, Chapter 17

17.30. States, acting individually, bilaterally, regionally or multilaterally and within the framework of IMO and other relevant international organizations, whether subregional, regional or global, as appropriate, should assess the need for additional measures to address degradation of the marine environment:

(a) From shipping, by:

(i) Supporting wider ratification and implementation of relevant shipping conventions and protocols;* * *

(v) Taking action to ensure respect of areas designated by coastal States, within their exclusive economic zones, consistent with international law, in order to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems, such as coral reefs and mangroves;* * *

17.84. States should prohibit dynamiting, poisoning and other comparable destructive fishing practices.

17.85. States should identify marine ecosystems exhibiting high levels of biodiversity and productivity and other critical habitat areas and should provide necessary limitations on use in these areas, through, inter alia, designation of protected areas. Priority should be accorded, as appropriate, to:

(a) Coral reef ecosystems;

(b) Estuaries;

(c) Temperate and tropical wetlands, including mangroves;

(d) Seagrass beds;

(e) Other spawning and nursery areas.

International efforts to address the problem of coral reef degradation have been spearheaded by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), created in 1994. Its founding members include 8 nations (Australia, France, Jamaica, Japan, the Philippines, Sweden, U.K. and U.S.) as well as U.N. bodies (the UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO), regional organizations (South Pacific Regional Environment Program, Coordinating Body for the Seas of East Asia), multilateral banks (World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank) and NGOs (IUCN, Alliance of Small Island States). The ICRI�s goals call for:

1) governments and international organizations strengthening commitment to and implementation of programs at the local, national, regional, and international levels to conserve, restore and promote sustainable use of coral reefs and associated environments;

2) each country and region incorporating into existing local, regional, and national development plans, management and provisions for protection, restoration, and sustainable use of the structure, processes and biodiversity of coral reefs and associated environments;

3) strengthening capacity for development and implementation of policies, management, research and monitoring of coral reefs and associated environments;

4) establishing and maintaining coordination of international, regional and national research and monitoring programs, including the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, in association with the Global Ocean Observing System, to ensure efficient use of scarce resources and a flow of information relevant to management of coral reefs and associated environments.

ICRI Web site <>

ICRI has taken a number of steps to implement these broad goals. Its Framework for Action provides governments and other interested parties a blueprint for effective measures to protect coral reef ecosystems and, in this sense, is similar to the Montreal Guidelines for Land-Based Marine Pollution. See Chapter 11, p. 783. ICRI�s most practical contribution has been a series of technical regional workshops in the Pacific, Tropical Americas, East Asian Seas, South Asian Seas, and Indian Ocean regions. In all, thanks to the support of UNEP�s Regional Seas Program, representatives of over 73 countries have participated in ICRI regional workshops, focusing on development of appropriate local policies and legislation to protect reefs, training in coastal zone management, monitoring species populations, coordinating law enforcement on destructive fishing practices, and incorporating reef conservation into educational curricula.

While the ICRI is not a funding mechanism, its high-profile activities have prompted commitments of bilateral and multilateral assistance. The Swedish government, for example, is now funding coral conservation programs in East Africa and assisting Tanzania, Mozambique and Sri Lanka. The U.K., U.S., and Japanese foreign aid ministries are also sponsoring coral reef conservation and management initiatives. The World Bank has announced its intention to put 15-20% of its $3 billion biodiversity budget into marine and coastal habitats. The Futurist, July, 1993.

To increase public awareness and scientific understanding of reefs, ICRI has launched an ambitious project, called the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, which will conduct the first surveys of the earth�s estimated 400,000 square miles of reef. The ICRI also joined with more than a hundred governments and scientific and environmental organizations to declare 1997 the International Year of the Reef, in order to publicize reef conservation. Seeking to strengthen international protection of coral reefs, ICRI has participated in conferences of the parties for conventions such as the Biodiversity Convention, the Ramsar Convention, and the UNEP Global Plan of Action to Protect the Marine Environment From Land-Based Activities. Many of the ICRI�s documents are located at the two web sites: <>, <>.

The World Natural Heritage Convention, discussed in chapter 15, has also promoted the protection of coral reefs. Seven reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and Tubbataha Reefs Ocean National Park in the Philippines, have been designated as Heritage Sites under the Convention. While designation does not, in and of itself, increase sites� funding or protection, it often leads to increased funding and protection thanks to a higher public profile. Another international initiative with promise has been UNESCO�s Man and the Biosphere program. Ten biospheres have been created that include coral reefs where the local community has control over the resources, such as at the Sian Ka�an Biosphere Reserve along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan peninsula. Peter Weber, Coral reefs face the threat of extinction, USA Today Magazine, May, 1993.

At the national level, the most direct measure to protect reefs is to accord them special conservation status. Parks are the traditional form of protection for natural habitats and 300 parks with coral reefs have been designated in 65 countries. Many of these are �paper parks,� however, lacking sufficient resources and staff to protect reefs sufficiently. The Caribbean has the highest proportion of marine parks yet fewer than than 30% of the designated areas are protected fully. The resources needed to manage an entire coastline are beyond the reach of most developing countries and conflicts with development pressures and local patterns of use are politically contentious. Ibid; The Christian Science Monitor, Jewels of the sea fight for survival, Sept. 27, 1996.

Questions and Discussion

1. The range of threats to coral reefs is daunting, requiring very different protection strategies, most of which are not ocean-based. Addressing land-based marine pollution requires a strategy of pollution control and prevention. To reduce topsoil erosion requires broad-scale land-use planning (such as forestry management plans). Mangrove swamps, threatened by coastal development and shrimp-farming in tidal areas, provide the nutrients and nursery areas for many coral reef species. Given these diverse threats, international law clearly cannot "save" the world�s coral reefs. What do you think should be the highest priority for international initiatives to save coral reefs? Should it be education, institution and capacity building, legally binding obligations, or something else?

2. Enforcement actions against parties damaging coral reefs are still rare. A notable exception occurred in 1988 at the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. The schooner, Windspirit, was anchoring in the park. A Park biologist noticed an underwater cloud of sediment kicked up by the Windspirit�s anchor and chain. Divers later found a scar roughly 128 meters long and 2 to 3 meters wide. Two years after the incident, the US government filed suit against Windstar Cruises, the cruise ship operator, claiming that the cruise line and captain were "�careless, incompetent, negligent and/or inattentive to their duties� when the ship�s anchor damaged the reef, which is, in essence park property." The suit sought $350,000 in "damages for destroying, disturbing, and damaging coral, marine invertebrates, plants, soil, and rock in the park when the anchor was grounded and dragged across a known and charted coral reef." The government won, including pre-judgment interest. "It is beyond cavil that defendant�s negligent actions caused much damage to the plaintiff�s property by destroying a substantial portion of a natural resource located in a national park and thereby causing plaintiff to lose significant uses commonly associated with such assets. Not only are divers, for example, unable to enjoy the lost portions of the reefs, but the park system has also lost its ability to fulfil its mandate to protect and preserve one of our nation�s natural resources." U.S. v. The Schooner Windspirit, 161 F.R.D. 321, 324 (U.S. Dist. Virgin Islands, 1995). William H. Allen, Increased dangers to Caribbean marine ecosystems: cruise ship anchors and intensified tourism threatens reefs, Bioscience, May, 1992. The park superintendent later instituted anchoring restrictions regarding vessel size and location of anchoring.

3. Ultimately, consumers are as responsible for the destructive practices of blast fishing and use of cyanide as the perpetrators. The U.S. is the largest importer of exotic aquarium fish, accounting for almost half of the world�s aquarium fish business. As Undersecretary Timothy Wirth has testified, "While many U.S. aquarium hobbyists may be unaware that they are supporting an industry that damages the reef ecosystems they are attempting to recreate at home, others are stepping forward to take action. Domestic and international ICRI partners in the non-governmental and private sector have formed a coalition which is exploring the possibility of establishing a voluntary certification system for the importers of aquarium fish... Ending the blight of cyanide fishing will not be simple, and experts have already concluded that cracking down on the far-flung fishermen is futile. As with ivory and the skins of endangered wildcats, the best hope is to police the middlemen while educating consumers." Testimony of Timothy E. Wirth, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, 105th Congress, May 6, 1997.

4. One measure which reduces the risk of damage to coral reefs is the designation of "special areas" under MARPOL 73/78, the convention regulating discharge of pollutants by ships. Recognizing that some sea regions are particularly vulnerable to oil pollution, MARPOL permits navigational restrictions on ships passing through special areas, defined as "an area where for recognized technical reasons in relation to its oceanographical and ecological condition and to the particular character of its traffic, the adoption of special mandatory methods for the prevention of sea pollution by oil is required." MARPOL Annex I, Regulation 1(10). For oil discharges, the Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Red Sea, and Gulf waters have been defined as Special Areas. MARPOL regulations for discharge of other pollutants provide for designation of special areas, as well. These regulations can be used to restrict traffic around sensitive reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.