|Written by Jim W. Harper -- BT Contributor|
Preserving our coral reefs should be a much higher priority
Nemo, the little orange clownfish of Disney fame, is becoming endangered. Soon he may be joining his other endangered friends from Finding Nemo: Crush, the green sea turtle; Bruce, the great white shark; and Sheldon, the seahorse. Imagine the inevitable question from children with teary eyes: Why is Nemo dying? (Say so long to Finding Nemo. Say hello to Dying Nemo.)
The answer to Nemo’s demise lies within the symbolic name of his mother: Coral. Many animals that call coral reefs home are in trouble because the entire reef system is in trouble -- big, nearly incomprehensible trouble.
Nemo represents just one drop in the reef’s bucket list. This past September, the Center for Biological Diversity filed an official petition to list the orange clownfish and six related reef fish as imperiled. In 2006, the center successfully petitioned for two species of Caribbean coral, both of which used to live in great numbers across South Florida, to become the first ones listed as “threatened.” In 2009, the center requested the listing of 83 individual coral species, and a final ruling is expected this month. “Threatened” is a less severe ranking than “endangered,” but both categories imply that extinction is likely.
And it gets worse. Across the world, the majority of the world’s warm-water reefs, not just the individual corals that build them, are dying, and scientists are predicting that coral reefs could become the first ecosystem to succumb to extinction caused by humans. Kaput. Gone. Like the rainforests on land, the “rainforests of the sea” are in jeopardy. How is this decline possible in a place where humans do not even live?
The answer involves an accumulation of impacts primarily from land-based pollution, overfishing, and climate change. The last is accelerating so quickly some scientists are stating that it is too late to save the ecosystem, so we should shift attention to saving bits and pieces of it. Others find hope in the resilience of nature, albeit with sobering reservations.
Coral animals are more tortoise than hare: They grow and reproduce slowly, and they don’t move. What took centuries to build could come crashing down in one hurricane -- or one season of extreme temperatures.
What really has the coral community running scared is the trend of ocean acidification, caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases. Think “acid rain” turning into “acid ocean,” and then think of all the marine creatures that have shells or, like corals, lay down skeletons that we later call limestone. After a certain tipping point in pH, those shells and skeletons don’t function. The plug gets pulled.
We have known for years -- even decades -- that Nemo’s home is in big trouble, so how has the U.S. reacted? We have dropped a few pennies into the tip jar and called it a day.
President Bill Clinton set up the jar with an executive order in 1998, and Congress followed in 2000 by filling it with $16 million per year for four years. Yet since 2004, despite several attempts, Congress has failed to reauthorize the Coral Reef Conservation Act.
Is $16 million too much to ask to save Nemo, his friends, and their invaluable home? While coral reefs should be considered priceless beyond measure, their practical value to us includes protecting our shores, providing food and medicinal resources, and entertaining tourists, which, in turn, creates countless jobs in the Florida Keys.
The reefs along southeast Florida’s coastline form the world’s third largest barrier reef and the most popular one for tourists. Unfortunately, reefs across the greater Caribbean are in worse condition than in the Pacific (which is somewhat good news for Nemo, because he lives there and not here; those Florida license plates of clownfish refer to aquarium fish raised in captivity, not wild fish).
Will the U.S. become better friends with Nemo? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been funding and coordinating coral reef research for nearly a decade while waiting for Congress to rejoin the crusade. NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program has moved in the right direction by taking the advice of experts to generate more “on the ground, in the water” action. It has correctly added an international arm, because all reefs are connected and because their primary threats are global, and because no one person, organization, or country alone can save reefs.
Florida should play a leading role, however, because of our many connections to reefs. What Florida’s reefs need now are informed leaders who are willing to lead.
Internationally, this environmental crisis may be the first true test of the functionality of the global village, and the U.S. can and should play a leading role. So far, U.S. policy initiatives to protect coral reefs have been too few. If we continue to wait years to act, soon it will be too late to find Nemo at all.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
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