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Caribbean coral reefs under increasing threat, warns UN agency

WASHINGTON, DC – Warming temperatures and increasing storms are posing serious threats to Caribbean coral reefs and the people who depend on them for their livelihoods, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said Monday, January 28.

During the last 50 years many Caribbean reefs lost up to 80 per cent of their coral cover, according to the Paris-based agency, which noted that 2005 was especially disastrous for Caribbean corals.

Worldwide, nearly 500 million people depend on healthy coral reefs for sustenance, coastal protection, renewable resources, and tourism, with an estimated 30 million of the world’s poorest people depending entirely on the reefs for food.

Coral reefs are fragile ecosystems and current estimates suggest that nearly two thirds of the world’s coral reefs are under severe threat from the effects of economic development and climate change, such as coral bleaching, a direct result of global warming.

The agency’s warning came ahead of next week’s launch of “The Status of Caribbean Coral Reefs after Bleaching and Hurricanes in 2005,” by Clive Wilkinson, Director of UNESCO’s Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, a report assessing the damage caused to the reefs by high temperatures and numerous storms of three years ago in the wider Caribbean, home to over 10 per cent of world’s reefs.

The report notes that the warmest year since temperature records began in 1880, 2005 witnessed massive coral losses through severe bleaching, up to 95 per cent in several islands including the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Cuba, and the French West Indies. There were also 26 named storms, including 13 hurricanes, that year.

Tackling the threats will require controlling further warming by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next 20 years and managing the direct pressures such as pollution, fishing and damaging coastal developments, the report states.

The report, co-sponsored by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and written by 80 coral reef scientists and managers, kicks off the International Year of the Reef 2008, a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the value of coral reefs and the threats they face, and to spur action to protect them.

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