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When did coral reef decline begin?

February 25, 2013

When did coral reef decline begin?

Some scientists say widespread coral reef decline in the Caribbean began with climate-change linked coral bleaching and disease in the 1980s

Some scientists say widespread coral reef decline in the Caribbean began with climate-change linked coral bleaching and disease in the 1980s. Katie Cramer, a postdoctoral fellow with Smithsonian's new MarineGEO project, believe it began earlier in areas with intense human activity.

Panama's Bocas del Toro is one such place. Forests were cleared for banana plantations a century ago, unleashing a flow of runoff and pollutants. Fishing was also intense. “It's almost as if they were primed for disaster when climate change came on board,” she adds.

Her research suggests coral decline began a century before bleaching and disease. “It looks like fishing and land clearing have actually weakened reefs, possibly bringing them to a tipping point where now climate change is having an even greater effect,” says Katie, who is part of a team with STRI paleobiologist Aaron O'Dea and Richard Norris from Scripps Institution of Oceanography that takes core samples from the seabed around Bocas.

It is generally believed that limiting fishing and pollution allows reefs to recover. Yet Katie says, “the link between local stressors and reef decline has to be proven definitively to empower managers to take action. Otherwise they're going to say, ‘It's just climate change and there's nothing we can do about it.'”

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