Charting a new course for coral reef conservation, working groups of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force respond to President Clinton^s order to conserve the nation^s coral reef ecosystems.
The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force adopted and released for public comment a draft National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs at their third meeting in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday, November 2-3, 1999. The Plan focuses on two fundamental themes-Understanding Coral Reef Ecosystems and Reducing the Adverse Impacts of Human Activities. Within these broad themes, 13 integrated conservation strategies were developed to address the nation^s coral reef crisis.
The Task Force also adopted a Guide for Management of Coral Reef Protected Areas. This Guide will focus on monitoring, education and management to help managers design and build effective coral reef protected areas. The Guide suggests, in conjunction with other scientific information, that a minimum of twenty percent of the area be established as pristine wilderness or replenishment zones.
"Today^s actions have made it clear that coral reef ecosystems deserve and will be getting stronger protection from their greatest threats," Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said. "One of the long-term benefits of the Task Force efforts will be a breaking down of the barriers that separate federal agencies, states, territories and local resource managers. It is important now to share information and strategies that work, put protections in place assess, map and monitor these precious resources that are often in desperate need. The future of sustainable fisheries and tourist economies will be beneficiaries of our success.
Among the National Action Plan recommendations were strategies to : map all coral reefs, assess and monitor reef health, create a network of coral reef marine protected areas, reduce impacts of extractive uses, restore damaged reefs, and increases enforcement on trade in hard corals and marine aquarium species. As part of the National Action Plan, public comment will be sought specifically on whether twenty percent of all coral reefs should be fully protected from all resource extraction.
"Coral reefs are deteriorating globally at alarming rates. Without a strong understanding of these complicated ecosystems and the challenges that face them, the health of our marine environment and our economy will be jeopardized," said Dr. James Baker, NOAA Administrator and co-chair of the meeting. "The Coral Reef Task Force has taken great strides at this meeting and over the past year to build a strong foundation for coral reef conservation. Together, we are making a difference for generations now and those to come.
Another vital recommendation is to reduce impacts of extractive uses, such as inappropriate fishing methods and global trade of coral reef resources. The United States currently imports over 80% of the live and dead coral in trade and more that 50% of marine aquarium fish. Many of these are overharvested or collected with destructive methods such as cyanide poisoning that destroys reefs. In the Caribbean, more that 20% of the regions dependent species are considered over-fished, while in some Hawaiian reefs, the most abundant reef fish have declined by 40% over the past twenty years. In effort to meet this challenge, the Working Group draft report recommended identifying and protecting critically important U.S. coral reef fisheries habitats and spawning populations by expanding the coverage of no-fishing zones to include reef habitats, in addition to reducing the over exploitation of reef organisms for aquarium trade.
Restoration was also identified by the Task Force as priority strategy. At the Coral Reef Task Force meeting in March 1999, Governor Sunia of American Samoa request that the Task Force develop and implement a comprehensive response and restoration plan for nine longline fishing vessels that came aground on the coral reef flats in Pago Pago Harbor during a 1991 typhoon. In response to Governor Sunia^s request, NOAA participated with the U.S. Coast Guard and other trustees to implement removal of the vessels and restoration of the injured coral reefs. This effort marks the shortest time frame for development of restoration plan and it is the first payment of a natural resource damages claim to NOAA from the USCG Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Governor Sunia invited the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to hold their next meeting in American Samoa.
The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, established by President Clinton in June 1998 at the National Ocean Conference, will also be seeking public comment on the Oversight of U.S. Agency Actions that affect coral reef protection. Both the National Action Plan and the Oversight will be widely available for public comment. Based on the review, revisions will be made and then both documents will be made available for adoption and implementation by the U.S. Coral Reef Force next summer.
U.S. coral reefs cover approximately 17,000 square kilometers. Ninety percent of them are with U.S. islands in the Pacific and the remainder are located off Florida, Georgia, Texas, and the U.S. Islands in the Caribbean. An estimated 10% of reefs worldwide have already been lost and 60% are threatened by human activities including shoreline development, polluted runoff from agriculture and land-use practices, ship groundings over-harvesting, destructive fishing, and climate change. Combined with natural stresses such as storms, bleaching and disease, these pressures put the viability of the world^s coral reefs at risk.
For more information about the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting and copies of the National Plan of Action to Conserve Coral Reefs, Oversight of U.S. Agency Action see the Task Force web site at http://www.coralreef.gov Or Contact the NOAA Public Affairs office at 202-482-6090 or the Department of the Interior 202-501-4633.