Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The aftermath of coral bleaching

The threat to coral reefs around the world received a bit of (surprisingly rare) press today, thanks to a meeting of the US Coral Reef Task Force in the Virgin Islands.

Reefs across the eastern Caribbean experienced extreme coral bleaching last year thanks to persistently warm water (I'm currently working on the subject). The recovery of corals in the Virgin Islands - where there was 47% mortality last year - and other parts of the Caribbean is one of the issues at the meeting.

While it is good to see news reports about the status of coral reefs, the loose use of the word "died" is irksome. Statements like "X % of coral reefs died" can give the mistaken impression that those coral reefs are gone forever because of that one bleaching event.

Like a forest after a fire, a coral reef can recover. The concern about coral bleaching is not the singular event -- the concern is that such events, or disturbances, may be happening more and more frequently. As the frequency of disturbance goes up, the chance for recovery tends to go down. Throw in all the other local threats, like sedimentation, nutrient loading, destructive fishing practices, etc., and coral reefs are even less resilient to disturbances like bleaching.

In fact, that's the message from a UN meeting in Beijing.

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