Ecosystems Facing Destruction

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Coral reefs around the world, "the rainforests of the sea," are in trouble and a group in Berkeley is out to protect them.

The Coral Reef Alliance was founded in 1994 by Stephan Colwell, a scuba diver who was shocked that people were not worried about the rate at which coral reefs were being destroyed, says Ellen Horne, a group member.

The group focuses its attention on the bottom of the ocean on rock ledges where "massive limestone structures" make up one of the largest and most complex ecosystems in the world, with 4,000 species of fish and 700 different corals, according to the alliance's Web site.

"A good way to imagine a coral reef is to think of it as a bustling city or community, with the buildings made of coral and thousands of inhabitants coming and going, carrying out their business," it says. "In this sense, a coral reef is like a metropolis of the sea."

Coral reefs are located in a strip around the equator and while every area is threatened, the Southeast Asian area is the hotspot of alarm right now because of cyanide poisoning, says Anita Daley, another group member.

Fishermen squirt cyanide into coral crevices where fish are hiding and break up the coral with hammers and crowbars to capture their dazed prey. Not only is the coral broken up, but it also becomes poisoned.

The reefs, which provide a source of food and income for coastal communities, are also getting hit by overfishing, ozone depletion and global warming, according to the group.

"Coral reefs are resiliant," Horne says. "They have survived Ice Ages and they can possibly regenerate if the threats go away. There are also artificial reefs that can be installed but some coral cannot grow on these types of reefs. Overall, though, all of these methods are no excuse to not care for our reefs before they are harmed."

And scientists do not all agree that the reefs can regenerate, Daley says. Some studies even show that 70 percent of the world's reefs may be destroyed in the next couple decades, the group asserts.

The group is working hard to keep coral reefs alive in three ways, says Horne. They are protecting reefs by creating coral reef parks where they can be appreciated in their natural habitat and funding conservation programs that reduce the impact of human activities on coral reefs.

When the group decided that they were going to start the coral reef parks, they looked to Bonaire, a small country with the right model, Daley says. By creating parks the group hopes to make divers aware that they are diving into a protected area and that their money is going into protecting it.

The second part of their program is educating people, by urging them not to buy live reef fish at restaurants or for an aquarium.

"We do general education outreach," says Daley. "We have a slideshow that people can rent out and show to groups of people."

The third main way the group is keeping coral alive is by building partnerships with people around the world who have the resources and skills to protect reefs - especially the diving industry, says Marty Dawson, a group member.

The group also gives out small grants of about $5,000 to grass-roots groups that are trying to work for the cause but do not have the funding.

Most of the areas where coral is present are tourist destinations like the Caribbean. This tourism is both a positive and a negative influence on coral preservation, members say.

Tourism will allow more people to actually go scuba diving and see the coral for themselves, Daley says, and the impact of actually seeing how beautiful the coral is up close usually makes people want to protect it. Tourism also brings in a lot of money that can be contributed to coral protection efforts, she says.

But too many tourists can also just add sewage, says Horne. And the more scuba divers there are in the water, the more risk there is of people touching and damaging the coral.

"We tell our members to not touch the coral and they tell other divers when they are out diving," Daley says.

Since its start, the Coral Reef Alliance has raised its membership to 10,000 people, many of them scuba divers.

But getting the group started was not easy because at first no one really understood what the group was trying to do.

"We would go to dive shows and be called 'reef huggers,'" Horne says, laughing. "People were just paranoid because they thought we were going to try and keep divers out of the water."

Now the group has been around for awhile and is no longer the "new kid on the block," as Horne put it, adding that people at the trade shows walk by and say they love the group's work.

Meanwhile, Horne says, 1998 was a bad year for coral reefs.

"This is when people really took notice because they couldn't say it wasn't happening," Horne says. "It is just taking people a while to realize this problem."


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