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Thursday, March 2, 2000

Reef-saving effort
focuses on Hawaii

The plan calls for 20 percent
of U.S. reefs to be set aside as
ecological reserves by the year 2010

By Helen Altonn


A national effort launched today to save the world's dying and threatened coral reefs focuses on Hawaii, which has 84 percent of all coral reefs in the United States.

Adding other Pacific coral reefs makes a total of 94 percent of all U.S. reefs in Hawaii and the Pacific, said Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and National Wildlife Service coral reef biologist for the Pacific area.

A National Action Plan by the U.S. Coral Task Force calls for setting aside 20 percent of all U.S. coral reefs as ecological reserves by 2010. It also wants to map all U.S. reefs by 2009.

The coral reef systems provide millions of jobs and billions of dollars each year in tourism. In Hawaii, gross revenue from just a single, half-square-mile coral reef reserve was estimated at more than $8.6 million a year.

Coral reefs -- "rain forests of the sea" -- provide services estimated up to $375 billion annually -- "a staggering figure for an ecosystem covering less than one percent of the Earth's surface," the U.S. Coral Task Force reported.

But if current conditions continue, "an alarming 70 percent of the world's reefs may be gone by 2050," said D. James Baker, task force co-chair and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"This rapid decline represents a serious threat to businesses, consumers, communities and the environment," Baker said as the task force unveiled an aggressive National Action Plan to save the reefs.

The plan calls for cooperation by federal agencies, coastal states and territories to designate ecological reserves to increase survival of coral reefs and marine species.

They will be "no-take" protective areas, said Maragos, who was on several working groups for the task force. "We're not simply calling it a 'park' and allowing all kinds of harvesting to go on."

The budget for this fiscal year includes the first federal money specifically aimed at coral reef preservation -- $6 million to NOAA and $5 million to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

President Clinton asked for $25 million for fiscal year 2001.

The plan calls for an integrated national reef monitoring system to profile and track the health of coral reefs and an All-Islands Coral Reef Initiative to address the highest priorities of U.S. state and territorial islands.

In the 2000 fiscal year, NOAA and the Interior Department will provide $1.35 million to assist Hawaii and other U.S. islands to improve coral reef management and protection, including monitoring, education and designation of marine protected areas.

"It remains to be seen what will happen with this plan," Maragos said. "It is hard to say what the next president or next Congress will do."

Maragos said there isn't good data to make clear judgments about the condition of Hawaiian reefs but "in the main islands, I think we're not doing very well, especially near populated areas."

Management of fisheries, especially recreational fishing, could be improved, he said. He also cited concerns about the effects of sewage, soil runoff, boating and anchoring on coral reefs.

Derelict fishing gear piled up on reefs and unauthorized and destructive fishing are major problems in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Maragos said, adding that there isn't a lot of surveillance or enforcement.

Global warming, which causes bleaching of reefs, is another big problem, he said.

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