There could yet be some hope for coral reefs according to a study by University of Florida and Caribbean researchers, which indicates that even damaged reefs are capable of recovery.
In a 13-year study in the Cayman Islands, warm ocean temperatures led to bleaching and infectious disease that reduced live coral cover by more than 40 percent between 1999 and 2004. But seven years later, the amount of live coral on the reefs, the density of young colonies and the overall size of corals all had returned to the 1999 state, the study showed.
Much of the reef surrounding Little Cayman Island is protected, so damage from fishing, anchoring and some other human activities is minimised, said UF researcher Chuck Jacoby, who helped with the study.
"Nevertheless, all coral reefs, even those that are well-protected, suffer damage," Jacoby said. "Little Cayman is an example of what can happen, because it is essentially free from local stresses due to its isolation, small human population and generally healthy ecology."
Reefs are under threat from overfishing, coral mining, tourism and coastal development and now global warming is accelerating the destruction.
But the UF study offers hope for coral reefs â”€ if humans pay more attention to protecting them.
"In addition to saving the living organisms that make coral reefs their homes, safeguarding the habitats could ensure millions of dollars for the fishing and tourism industries, not to mention maintaining barriers that protect coastal areas and their human inhabitants from tropical storms," said Tom Frazer, a professor of aquatic ecology at UF.
The study was published in the November online publication Public Library of Science, and highlighted in the "Editor’s Choice" section of last month’s issue of the journal Science.
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