America’s Coral Reefs: Awash with Problems

Government must acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis and fully engage the scientific and conservation communities in efforts to solve it.

America’s coral reefs are in trouble. From the disease-ridden dying reefs of the Florida Keys, to the overfished and denuded reefs of Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, this country’s richest and most valued marine environment continues to decline in size, health, and productivity.

How can this be happening to one of our greatest natural treasures? Reefs are important recreational areas for many and are loved even by large portions of the public who have never had the opportunity to see their splendor firsthand. Coral reefs are sometimes referred to as the “rainforests of the sea,” because they teem with life and abound in diversity. But although only a small number of Americans have ever had rainforest experiences, many more have had the opportunity to dive and snorkel in nearshore reef areas. And in contrast to the obscured diversity of the forests, the gaudily colored fish and invertebrates of the reef are there for anyone to see. Once they have seen these treasures, the public becomes transformed from casual observers to strong advocates for their protection. This appeal explains why many zoos have rushed in recent years to display coral reef fishes and habitats, even in inland areas far from the coasts (such as Indianapolis, site of one of the largest of the country’s public aquaria). Coral reefs have local, national, and even global significance.

Even when one looks below the surface (pun intended) of the aesthetic appeal of reefs, it is easy to see why these biological communities command such respect. Coral reefs house the bulk of known marine biological diversity on the planet, yet they occur in relatively nutrient-poor waters of the tropics. Nutrient cycling is very efficient on reefs, and complicated predator-prey interactions maintain diversity and productivity. But the fine-tuned and complex nature of reefs may spell their doom: Remove some elements of this interconnected ecosystem, and things begin to unravel. Coral reefs are one of the few marine habitats that undergo disturbance-induced phase shifts: an almost irreversible phenomenon in which diverse reef ecosystems dominated by stony corals dramatically turn into biologically impoverished wastelands overgrown with algae. Worldwide, some 30 percent of reefs have been destroyed in the past few decades, and another 30 to 50 percent are expected to be destroyed in 20 years’ time if current trends continue. In the Caribbean region, where many of the reefs under U.S. jurisdiction can be found, coral cover has been reduced by 80 percent during the past three decades.

The U.S. government is fully aware of the value of these marine ecosystems and the fact that they are in trouble. In 1998, the Clinton administration established the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF), a high-level interagency group charged with examining reef problems and finding solutions. Executive Order 13089 stipulated that a task force be established to oversee that “all Federal agencies whose actions may affect U.S. coral reef ecosystems shall: (a) identify their actions that may affect U.S. coral reef ecosystems; (b) utilize their programs and authorities to protect and enhance the conditions of such ecosystems; and (c) to the extent permitted by law, ensure that any actions they authorize, fund, or carry out will not degrade the conditions of such ecosystems.” The task force comprises 11 federal agencies, plus corresponding state, territorial, and tribal authorities.

The USCRTF has looked for ways to better monitor the condition of reefs, share information, and coordinate management. Among the key government players are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Defense, Department of Agriculture, Department of Justice, Department of State, National Science Foundation (NSF), and NASA. Yet however well-intentioned this move on the part of government, coral reef health has continued to decline, and the USCRTF, while elevating the profile of the issue, has not been able to stem the degradation. The reasons for this ineffectiveness are complex and go beyond the “too little, too late” offered as the standard criticism. Although the response of the government may have indeed come too late for many of America’s reefs, the shortcomings of the task force have more to do with its reluctance to fully engage with the scientific community, take advantage of emerging technologies, and raise awareness about the consequences of reef degradation. If this is happening to our most treasured marine environments, what can the future be for our less-well-loved, less charismatic marine areas?

Threats to U.S. reefs

Even as we are becoming more fully aware of their enormous ecological and economic value, coral reefs are being lost in the United States, just as they are being destroyed in other parts of the world. Some 37 percent of all corals in Florida have died since 1996, and the incidence of coral disease at sampling sites there went up by 446 percent in the same short period. The U.S. has jurisdiction over a surprisingly large proportion of extant coral reefs, including the world’s third largest barrier reef in Florida; a vast tract of reef systems throughout the Hawaiian Islands; and extensive reefs in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. These reef resources contribute an estimated $375 billion to the U.S. economy annually, yet virtually all of these reef ecosystems are under threat, and many may be destroyed altogether in the coming decades.

Although in many parts of the world coral reefs are deliberately destroyed in the process of coastal development or to obtain construction materials, in the United States coral reefs suffer the classic death of a thousand cuts. They are strongly affected by eutrophication: the overfertilization of waters caused by the inflow of nutrients from fertilizer, sewage, and animal wastes. The overabundance of nutrients causes algae to overgrow and smother coral polyps; in extreme cases, leading to totally altered and biologically impoverished alternate ecosystems. Reefs are also sensitive to sediments that increase turbidity and reduce the sunlight reaching the coral colonies. (Though corals are animals, they have symbiotic dinoflagellates called zooxanthellae living within their tissues. The photosynthesis undertaken by these plant symbionts provides corals with the extra energy needed to create the calcium carbonate that forms their skeletons and thus the reef structure.) Sedimentation is a common threat to U.S. coral reefs, especially in areas where unregulated coastal development or deforestation causes soil runoff into nearshore waters.

Because energy flows in coral reef ecosystems are largely channeled into ecosystem maintenance and little surplus is available for harvest, reefs are highly sensitive to overfishing. The removal of grazing fishes, for instance, increases the likelihood that algae will dominate the reef, causing a subsequent decline in productivity and diversity. Reef communities denuded of even relatively small numbers of fishes are also less likely to recover from episodic bleaching events, because recruitment is inhibited by the lack of grazing fishes to create settlement space. Similarly, declines in sea turtle species such as hawksbill and green turtles negatively affect reef ecology. The removal of top predators such as reef sharks, jacks, and barracudas can also cause cascading effects resulting in reduced overall diversity and declines in productivity. Despite these impacts, very few coral reef areas of the United States have fishing regulations expressly designed to prevent these ecological cascading effects from occurring. In fact, most people would be surprised to find out that even in seemingly protected reefs, such as those that occur within the Virgin Islands Biosphere Reserve around St. John, U.S.V.I., almost all forms of recreational and commercial fishing are allowed.

Coral reefs are also extremely vulnerable to changes in their ambient environment, having narrow tolerance ranges in temperature and salinity. Warming affects both coral polyp physiology and the pH of seawater, which in turn affects the calcification rates of hard corals and their ability to create reef structure. For this reason, even a slight warming of sea temperatures has dramatic effects, especially when coupled with other negative impacts such as eutrophication and overfishing. There is some indication that warming sea temperatures may render coral colonies vulnerable to the spread of disease or to increased mortality in response to normally nonpathogenic viruses and bacteria. The spread of known coral diseases and the emergence of new, even more debilitating diseases are alarming phenomena in the Florida Keys reefs and underlie many of the die-back episodes there in the past decade.

There is not yet widespread recognition of the grave dangers U.S. reefs face.

The effects of warming are most clearly manifested in coral bleaching. Bleaching is an event in which the zooxanthellae of the corals, which give corals their beautiful colors, are expelled from the coral polyps, leaving the colonies white. Bleached corals cannot lay down calcium carbonate skeletons and thus enter a period of stasis. A bleached coral is not necessarily a dead coral, however, and corals have been known to recover from bleaching events (we also know from paleoarcheology that bleaching is a natural event that preceded greenhouse gas-related warming of the atmosphere). Because some reefs do fully recover after bleaching, it is difficult to predict what consequences warming events such as periodic El Niños will have on the long-term health of any reef. This uncertainty has been seized on by both doomsayers and naysayers in the debate about the future of reefs: The doomsayers declare that the majority of reefs face certain death from bleaching, while the naysayers claim that bleaching is not only natural but adaptive. However, one thing is absolutely clear: Stressed reefs have a heightened sensitivity to temperature changes and are far less likely to recover from bleaching events. And with a few exceptions (some parts of the northwest Hawaiian Islands and Palmyra Atoll, for instance), all of the coral reefs in the United States are highly stressed by a combination of land-based sources of pollution, overfishing, and the destruction of habitats that are ecologically critical to reef communities, such as seagrass beds and mangrove forests. This does not bode well for a future in which sea temperatures will undoubtedly continue to rise.

These losses affect more than our personal environmental sensibilities. Reefs support some of the most important industries in the United States and the rest of the world: 5 percent of world commercial fisheries are reef-based, and over 50 percent of U.S. federally managed fishery species depend on reefs during some part of their life cycle. Herman Cesar, Lauretta Burke, and Lida Pet-Soede argue in a recent monograph on the economics of coral reef degradation that the costs of better managing reefs are far outweighed by the net benefits provided by reefs. In the Florida Keys, for example, they claim that a proposed wastewater treatment plant that would mitigate many of the threats to the Florida Keys reef tract would cost $60 to $70 million in capital costs and about $4 million in annual maintenance costs. At the same time, the benefits to the local population (estimated to be greater than the net present value of $700 million) would far eclipse the outlays. In Hawaii and the reef-fringed territories, coastal tourism is tightly coupled to intact reefs. Reefs in these regions not only provide tourist destinations, they also play important roles in controlling beach erosion and buffering land from storms. In such places, it is easy to see how an investment in better reef protection would be a small cost in contrast to the great benefits provided by sustained tourism revenues.

Inadequate responses

The failure to respond to the coral reef crisis in this country has to do with many factors:

Incomplete understanding of the problem and communication failures. Although there is an appreciation of the crisis worldwide, there is still reluctance on the part of some U.S. managers to consider the crisis “our problem.” Everyone is quick to lament the destruction of Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean reefs by dynamite fishers, or the use of cyanide in collecting coral reef fish in the Philippines, but the reefs under U.S. jurisdiction have hardly fared better. In the past decade, we have seen a slow awakening to the problems facing U.S. reefs, but the response has been to collect more data, slowly and painstakingly. At first independently, and then in a more coordinated fashion with the establishment of the USCRTF, government agencies have made greater efforts to monitor reefs in certain regions, but the massive amounts of data collected often create problems in data interpretation and management. Too little emphasis has been placed on either synthesizing the data collected or collecting data in new ways to make it more relevant for conservation. Lacking a synthesis or periodic syntheses, we end up burying our heads in the sand about what is happening to our coral reefs.

The USCRTF and the government agencies it represents have not actively looked for ways to partner with academic, scientific, and nongovernmental organizations to take advantage of information being collected and disseminated by them. Instead, the government has relied almost solely on the efforts of its own scientists. Many of its scientists, such as Charles Birkeland of the U.S. Geological Survey, are indeed world leaders in coral reef ecology and management, but collectively the research being undertaken by government agencies is either substandard, too conservative, or both. Virtually every new advance in coral reef ecosystem understanding has been made not by government scientists but by academics or researchers in the private sector. U.S. government scientists have not explored the potential of new technologies such as biochemical markers that indicate reef stress (pioneered by the private sector), nor have they properly harnessed the remote sensing technologies they have deployed in order to improve reef surveillance.

Even the knowledge that has been gained is inadequately communicated to the public and to decisionmakers. Part of the problem has been the rush to oversimplify what is actually a very complex set of issues, in the hopes that decisionmakers higher up will take both notice and action. In the Florida Keys, for instance, advocates for improving the water quality of the nearshore environment have fought against the restoration of the Florida Everglades, arguing that the increased water flows into Florida Bay would bring higher concentrations of pollutants to the reef tract. In casting the reef problems in such a simplistic light, proponents of singular solutions actually impede responsible government agencies from tackling reef problems head-on and in the comprehensive manner that is required.

The U.S. government has serious shortcomings when it comes to communicating and raising awareness about complicated environmental issues. For this reason, it would behoove the USCRTF to partner with organizations that have good outreach mechanisms in place, such as environmental groups. Such public-private partnerships would also ease the financial burden of the cash-strapped government agencies, allowing them to spend funds in short supply on management and on measuring management efficacy.

Poor use of cutting-edge science and the at-large scientific community. Although the United States is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, it has not adequately harnessed science to address the coral reef crisis. In a 1999 article in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research, Michael Risk compares the response of the scientific community to the coral reef crisis with its response to two other crises affecting the United States: acid rain in the Northern Hemisphere and eutrophication of the Great Lakes. Risk argues that whereas there was effective engagement of the scientific community in tackling the latter two issues, neither U.S. nor international scientists have helped craft an effective response to the large-scale death of reefs.

Risk is right to ask why science has failed coral reefs, but I take issue with his assessment of the nation’s inadequate response to the crisis. It is not the fault of the scientific community that the government has been slow to act to save reefs, but rather the fault of government in not knowing how to use science and scientists effectively. Decisionmakers have not engaged the scientific community and have failed to heed what scientific advice has been put forward. For instance, the government did not fully mobilize nongovernmental academic institutions and conservation organizations to help draft its National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs, and as a result the plan has been criticized as lacking in rigor and ambition. It is telling that a World Bank project to undertake global coral reef-targeted research, which assembles international teams of leading researchers to address critical issues of bleaching, disease, connectivity, remote sensing, modeling, and restoration, has a paucity of U.S. government scientists in all six of the working groups. This targeted research project is crucial: It intends to identify the key questions that managers need to have answered in order to better protect reefs, and it aims to do intensive applied research to answer those questions.

The costs of managing reefs are far outweighed by the net benefits provided by reefs.

The National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs was produced by the USCRTF and published on March 2, 2000. It is a general document describing why coral reefs are important and what needs to be done to protect them. There are two main sections: understanding coral reef ecosystems and reducing the adverse impacts of human activities. The first section discusses four action items: (1) create comprehensive maps, (2) conduct long-term monitoring and assessment, (3) support strategic research, and (4) incorporate the human dimension (undertake economic valuation, etc.). The second section is a bit more ambitious: (1) create and expand a network of marine protected areas (MPAs), (2) reduce impacts of extractive uses, (3) reduce habitat destruction, (4) reduce pollution, (5) restore damaged reefs, (6) reduce global threats to coral reefs, (7) reduce impacts from international trade in coral reef species, (8) improve federal accountability and coordination, and (9) create an informed public. All well and good, but despite its moniker the action plan provides almost no guidance on how to do these things. It called for each federal agency to develop implementation plans (required by Executive Order 13089) by June 2000. However, those plans were only to cover fiscal years 2001 and 2002, and the plans were never formalized or made public. The USCRTF recognized that a greater investment needed to be made to figure out how each agency was going to contribute to carrying out the action plan and pushed agencies to develop post-2002 strategies. To date, only the Department of Defense and NOAA have completed such strategies. NOAA’s plan is embodied in its National Strategy for Conserving Coral Reefs document published in September 2002. Both the action plan and the NOAA strategy are available on the USCRTF Web site (www.coralreef.gov).

The plans put forward by the USCRTF, however, place far too much emphasis on monitoring and mapping and far too little emphasis on abating threats and effectively managing reefs. The focus of research has been to monitor existing conditions rather than to set up applied experiments that would tell us which threats are most critical to tackle. This is not to say that all government research has been worthless. Regular monitoring in the Florida Keys allowed NOAA to understand the alarming “blackwater” event in January 2003 (in which fishermen noticed black water, later found to be a combination of a plankton bloom and tannins, moving from the Everglades toward the reefs) and reassure the public that it was a natural event, because they had several years of monitoring information with which they could hindcast. Similarly, the mapping investment, although too high a priority, has led to some interesting revelations: There are newly discovered reefs in the northeastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico that are now on the public’s radar screen, for instance.

Although the USCRTF has recognized the importance of MPAs in conserving reefs, it has not given the government agencies that have responsibility for implementation guidance on how to optimally design these protected areas. The action plan thus codifies a dangerous tendency to use simplistic formulae for designing protected areas. The plan states these as its goals: “establish additional no-take ecological reserves to provide needed protection to a balanced suite of representative U.S. coral reefs and associated habitats, with a goal to protect at least 5% of all coral reefs . . . by 2002; at least 10% by 2005, and at least 20% by 2010.” By adopting a policy of conserving 20 percent of reef areas within no-take reserves, without requiring planners to fully understand the threats to a particular reef and without guiding planners to locate such protected areas in the most ecologically critical areas, the plan pushes decisionmakers to implement ineffective MPAs, thus squandering opportunities for real conservation. In some jurisdictions, these area targets have already been reached, with 20 percent of reef areas set aside as no-take zones, but because these areas were chosen more for their ease of establishment and less for their ecological importance, little conservation has been accomplished. In a true display of lack of ambition and creativity, the USCRTF and its agencies have not considered using ocean zoning outside of MPAs to conserve reefs, and the MPA directives remain an old-school, one-size-fits-all approach.

Despite its moniker, the National Action Plan provides almost no guidance on how to do the things it calls for.

Poor governmental coordination and lots of infighting. Since its formation in June of 1998, the USCRTF has made some strides toward better monitoring, information sharing, and management coordination for reefs under U.S. jurisdiction. This is no minor feat, because until the task force was established, no effort had been made to promote communication and cooperation between the multitude of agencies and bureaus that each have a role to play in coral reef management. NOAA’s National Ocean Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the EPA are the key players in the USCRTF, but also important are the National Parks Service, DOD, Department of Agriculture, Department of Justice, Department of State, NSF, and NASA. Although the major players (in particular, NOAA and the Department of the Interior) are engaged in internecine warfare over territorial claims and access to funding, some of the more minor players have taken their charge very seriously. DOD, for example, has developed its own plan for conserving the reefs under its jurisdiction, which include some of the most pristine reefs in the nation, such as the reefs of Johnston Atoll in the central Pacific.

Unlike many terrestrial habitats, coral reefs suffer both from human activity that directly affects the marine environment (such as dredging, fishing, and marine tourism) and from activity on land that has an indirect but highly insidious effect on reef health and productivity. Thus, in order to better understand and manage reefs, it is imperative that the United States continues, and now strengthens, coordinating mechanisms between the various government entities that control the wide array of human activities that damage reefs.

The USCRTF now has a roadmap to increase understanding about coral reefs and better protect them from further destruction, embodied in the National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs. A subsequent report prepared by NOAA, in cooperation with the USCRTF, was submitted to Congress in 2002. The 156-page National Coral Reef Action Strategy provides a nationwide status report on implementation of the National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs and the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000.

Will the USCRTF now be able to do what it could not in the first five years of its existence: stem the tide of degradation affecting U.S. coral reefs? Or is the U.S. government merely creating a façade of improved management, while government researchers and managers continue to work in isolation from cutting-edge researchers in U.S. academe, nongovernmental organizations, and international institutions? Will new policy developments, such as the administration’s support for broad environmental exemptions for DOD’s military training and antiterrorism operations, act to wholly undermine any substantive progress made by the USCRTF and the government agencies it represents?

Only time will answer these questions with certainty, but the initial impressions are not promising. The National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs is too heavily invested in relatively easily accomplished activities such as mapping the nation’s coral reefs, and its formulaic and simplistic approach to creating MPAs will not likely result in meaningful protection. Already overburdened and underfunded agencies are not getting the political mentoring they need to ensure that appropriations will be sufficient to allow them to carry out their mandates under these plans. Without public-private partnerships and private-sector financial support, too many elements of the plan will fall by the wayside. Neither the Action Plan nor the NOAA strategy provide adequate information on the true choices and tradeoffs that decisionmakers will have to consider and act on in order to create a revolution in the way we manage coral reefs. And clearly a revolution is needed; business as usual will only continue to put U.S. coral reef ecosystems in harm’s way. In the end, the United States may fall far short of its goal of demonstrating how to effectively manage coral reefs in a way that all the world can see. Instead, it may well win the race to destroy the inventory of one of the world’s most diverse and precious environments.

Global forces are at play: The United States is not an island. Were the United States suddenly to act more effectively to protect reefs under its jurisdiction, our reef ecosystems would still be in some peril, for many reasons. First, many damaging activities occur out of sight, especially in remote reef areas with little or no surveillance. Second, the open nature of marine systems means that reefs are affected by the condition of the environment far from the reef tracts themselves. Sometimes larval propagules travel long distances, and the origin of recruits is tens or hundreds of kilometers away, in areas that could be entirely outside U.S. jurisdiction. Similarly, pollution from outside the U.S. can easily find its way to reefs within America’s borders. Finally, some threats to reefs are global in nature, such as rising temperatures caused by global warming. These threats will not diminish unless meaningful international agreements succeed in tackling the root causes of the threats. For all these reasons, protection of U.S. reefs will require more than administering the reefs within our borders; it will also require international negotiation, cooperation, and capacity-building.

Promising sign

Is there hope for U.S. coral reefs? Yes, as long as we can more fully engage the private sector and the scientific community in the struggle to save reefs, and at the same time convince decisionmakers of the need to take significant steps to protect these fragile ecosystems. It is a promising sign that in June 2003, NOAA, EPA, and the Department of the Interior convened a meeting in Hawaii to discuss coral bleaching and ways to gain better collaboration between the scientific community at large and the government agencies charged with managing reefs. The USCRTF is beginning to reach out to scientists involved in coral reef research and management outside the United States, such as the coral reef-targeted research working groups formed under the recent World Bank initiative. In this way, the U.S. government can begin to take advantage of the significant strides in scientific understanding that have been made by nongovernmental researchers, both in the United States and abroad.

New advances in technology may help coral reefs as well, and just in time. For instance, the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation has teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other academic institutions to attempt to launch a satellite that will provide real-time information about the condition of reefs worldwide. Such a satellite mission would make it possible to know the extent of coral bleaching and the presence of fishing operations anywhere in the world at any time. With such a system in place, traditional surveillance could be cut back, allowing money to be redirected toward conservation. At the same time, donors could get a better sense of where their investments are paying off in terms of real conservation of reefs and could identify trouble spots quickly enough to get funds flowing to places where emergency measures are needed.

With the full engagement of the scientific community and with partnering to remove some of the burden from beleaguered government agencies, managers will be able to tailor responses to the given threats at any reef location. Where fishing is deemed to be a major stressor, the United States will have to find the political will to manage reef-based fisheries more effectively. Where pollution (whether nutrients, toxics, debris, or alien species) is undermining reef health and resilience, coastal zone and agricultural agencies will have to work to find ways to reduce pollutant loading. Where visitor overuse and diver damage are issues, managers will have to look for ways to prevent people from loving reefs to death. And in all areas, managers will have to resist oversimplifying the situation and begin to better inform the public and decisionmakers about the hard choices to be made.

The coral reef crisis is indeed our problem. It affects our natural heritage and the livelihoods of a great number of our citizens. Only when the people in power recognize the magnitude of the problem will effective steps be taken to engage the wider scientific and conservation community in safeguarding reefs. When future generations look back at the dawn of the millennium and the environmental choices that were made, they will either curse us for letting one of nature’s most wondrous ecosystems be extinguished or praise us for recognizing the great value of reefs and moving to protect them. I hope it is the latter.

Recommended Reading

  • Tundi Agardy et al., Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 13 (2003): 1-15.
  • Herman Cesar, Lauretta Burke, and Lida Pet-Soede, The Economics of Worldwide Coral Reef Degradation (WWF Netherlands, Zeist, Netherlands, 2003).
  • Michael J. Risk, Marine and Freshwater Research 50 (1999): 831-837.
  • C. Wilkinson, ed., Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2000 (AIMS, Dampier, Australia, 2000).
  • Web page of the USCRTF (www.coralreef.gov).
  • Terry P. Hughes et al., “Climate change, human impacts, and the resilience of coral reefs” Science 301 (August 15, 2003): 929-933.
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Cite this Article

Agardy, Tundi. “America’s Coral Reefs: Awash with Problems.” Issues in Science and Technology 20, no. 2 (Winter 2004).

Vol. XX, No. 2, Winter 2004