Coral reefs, in many ways the symbol of unlimited beauty and wonder in the ocean, continue to suffer serious damage, mostly by pollution runoff. Yet reefs are receiving little attention by the U.S. government in terms of research and environmental protection. For example, scientists at NOAA were frustrated recently when Congress denied a request for funds to implement a widespread study of coral reefs in U.S. waters. “Congress zeroed-out our request for $12 million to map, monitor, and manage coral reefs and to support local efforts as well. This is no way to manage and protect such a resource. We’re essentially losing our reefs,” said Sally Yozell, NOAA’s deputy assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere. “The health of the reefs in U.S. waters is devastating. Coral reefs are probably the most valuableand most threatenedmarine ecosystems on the planet.”
NOAA has cited pollution runoff, vessel groundings, and sea-borne debris as major contributors to reef decline. But a first step in managing reefs is to map reef locations around coastal U.S. waters; only 10 percent of all American reefs are mapped, according to Yozell. “Last year we were asked by Bill Clinton’s executive order to establish a coral reef task force. So we came up with this proposal, $6 million of which was approved by the Senate. But the House said no to all of it,” Yozell said, adding that, despite the setback, NOAA is continuing efforts to protect resources.
One example is the establishment of a series of Marine Protected Areas that will be no-take zones: off limits to fishing and harvesting of any kind. Near the Dry Tortugas, a new underwater park called Tortugas Reserve will be a 185-square-nm area known to contain a healthy coral system that supports many diverse species, including sea turtles, manatees, snapper, and grouper. The reserve will be accessible by boat and seaplane for diving and snorkeling, provided vessels use pre-existing moorings or do not anchor in coral patches.
NOAA: (202) 482-6090, or visit www.coralreef.noaa.gov.