Helping Coral Reefs, Oceans and Ourselves

  • August 26, 2010
  • By Robert Richmond


The recent tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico has focused our nation's attention on the challenge of balancing competing uses of our marine resources. The threat from oil spills, however, is just one of the problems our oceans face today.

Fortunately, President Obama recently signed an executive order establishing a new unified national ocean policy. This new national policy has the potential to dramatically improve the state of our oceans - providing us with an invaluable tool to untangle the maze of laws and regulations that currently govern everything from reefs to offshore energy resources.

Coral reefs, among our world's most striking natural treasures, provide a prime example. Their "sparkle" is now diminishing. Over the last 36 years I have witnessed their extensive degradation, as pollution, global warming and destructive fishing practices continue to take a tremendous toll on these fragile ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

These reefs provide economic benefits for many U.S. communities, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars each year. They also provide important cultural benefits and invaluable ecological protection. In fact, nearly half of all federally managed fish populations depend on coral reefs and adjacent habitats for a part of their life cycles.

Existing federal legislation, though, is largely outdated. The century-old Rivers and Harbors Act, for example, allows the Army Corps of Engineers to engage in or provide permits for activities destructive to coral reefs, over objections from more biologically oriented agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Moreover, when it comes to the effects of water pollution on corals and associated organisms, federal pollution limits are based more on chemistry than protecting key biological processes, such as reproduction, and they often ignore the harmful effect of combinations of pollutants. As a result, it is possible to be in legal compliance with established standards for a number of toxicants, while a reef's ability to survive is threatened by the combined effects of the "soup." On July 19, the White House announced the creation of a unifying national ocean policy that will protect key natural resources and ensure that sustainability will drive future economic activities both offshore and onshore. This long overdue initiative presents us with a unique chance to end the political paralysis that has compromised the ability of many coastal communities around the nation to protect reefs and other threatened marine ecosystems.

Our oceans are currently managed by more than 140 laws and 20 agencies, in a disjointed system with often conflicting goals. President Obama's executive order, however, creates a National Ocean Council to coordinate activities with an eye on the bigger policy picture.

Although an integrated national ocean policy will not clean up our oceans or restore depleted resource stocks overnight, this achievement is a key step forward. And action now is critical, as time to fix current problems is short. Indeed, a colleague's research shows that a collection of coral reefs possessing roughly 80 percent live coral cover in the early 1900s averages only 38 percent or less today. Unless policy changes are made and implemented quickly, these reefs could drop to less than 10 percent live coral by the year 2100.

Reefs and other marine ecosystems cannot truly be managed. Fish, corals and other sea creatures will do whatever their genetics dictate. The best we can strive for is to manage human activities responsible for the degradation and devastation of marine ecosystems.

President Obama's newly announced national ocean plan is an invaluable insurance policy on the future health of our oceans - providing us with the chance to make decisions on the use of our limited marine resources based on the best available biological, physical, economic and social sciences. As illustrated so dramatically by the tragic Gulf oil spill, today's mistakes will only increase the hardships felt tomorrow and become more costly to fix the longer we wait.

About the Writer
Robert Richmond is a research professor at the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Marine Laboratory and a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation. Readers may write to him at University of Hawaii at Manoa, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, 41 Ahui Street, Honolulu, Hawaii; e-mail: richmond@hawaii.edu.