March 6, 1997 Contact: Robert Irion (408) 459-2495; firstname.lastname@example.org
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LED BY UC SANTA CRUZ, IS FIRST ACADEMIC PARTNER IN INTERNATIONAL CORAL REEF INITIATIVE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
SANTA CRUZ, CA--Coral reefs, beautiful barometers of the health of the coastal environment, are in grave danger. Rapid human population growth leading to pollution, development, overfishing, warming, and other disturbances threaten to wipe out 20 to 30 percent of the world's coral reefs by 2010, according to some estimates. Already, civilization has degraded about 10 percent of all reefs.
To call attention to these issues, conservationists and marine scientists designated 1997 as the International Year of the Coral Reef. That designation heightens the focus on a global partnership to protect and manage these irreplaceable resources: the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI).
The University of California recently became ICRI's first academic partner, joining about 50 nations and organizations. Undersecretary Timothy Wirth of the U.S. State Department issued the formal invitation to UC President Richard C. Atkinson. UC Santa Cruz, home to a forefront group of marine researchers, will coordinate UC's involvement in ICRI as the lead campus.
"Coral reefs are by far our richest marine ecosytems, but in many ways we know so little about them," says Donald Potts, professor of biology at UCSC. "Most of them are in shallow waters near the shores of developing countries, which puts them at extreme risk from the effects of massive population growth. Unless we understand how reefs function as ecosystems, we will be in no position to help developing societies use them sustainably."
Founded in December 1994, ICRI is implementing some of the major goals of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Delegates at UNCED concluded that the most urgent environmental issues stem from growth in more than 100 developing countries around the world, mostly in the tropics. ICRI aims to improve our scientific understanding of coral reefs, thereby enhancing the economic and social development of tropical societies that depend on reefs.
ICRI has served as a catalyst for researchers around the world to cooperate on complex and interdisciplinary scientific, political, and educational challenges related to coral reefs, Potts says. The initiative focuses on reefs as vital resources to sustain, not just as stunning tableaux to preserve.
Contrary to how it might appear, coral reefs are actually quite resilient, says Potts, a longtime coral researcher. Many corals live for centuries or even millennia, succumbing only to drastic events such as hurricanes or changes in sea level. However, the sheer scale of today's human-caused disturbances can overwhelm even the hardiest reefs, he says. Foremost among these are sewage, sediments, pesticides, and other runoff from development on land; large-scale mining operations for cement and other reef-derived building materials; intensive farming, especially of shrimp, that harms reefs directly or destroys nearby mangrove swamps; and the still poorly understood effects of long-term climate change.
For the partners in ICRI to promote a rational use of coral reefs in developing countries, Potts says, they must have solid scientific ground on which to stand. One of UC's primary roles in ICRI, he notes, will be to bring the research strengths of its many natural and social scientists to bear on several critical topics. Among them are the following:
* The biodiversity of organisms that inhabit coral reefs. "We need to know what species live there and study their basic ecologies," Potts says. "We don't even know of the existence of most of these organisms, much less anything about their roles in how the ecosystems function."
* Learning more about how corals respond to stress, both natural and unnatural. For instance, coral "bleaching," which occurs when corals shed their resident algae, continues to spread widely. Researchers still aren't sure about its root causes.
* Potential medicinal uses for the exotic chemicals contained in the tissues of many plant and animal denizens of coral reefs. Viewing reefs as watery pharmacies-in-waiting may help encourage nations to preserve them.
* Studying corals as tracers of past climate changes. "Coral skeletons retain isotopic and other signatures of the environment," Potts says. These valuable records may shed light on the likely fate of the ocean as humans tinker with the planet's thermostat.
Further, Potts is enthusiastic about the budding collaborations among natural scientists and social scientists throughout the UC system on problems related to tropical countries. For example, UCSC already has more than two dozen researchers who have worked in Papua New Guinea--home to extensive and largely pristine reefs--on issues ranging from marine biology, geology, and chemistry to anthropology, environmental studies, and education. UC researchers are eager to create similar multidisciplinary foci in other developing regions, Potts believes.
Potts also hopes to draw upon the expertise of researchers at neighboring institutions, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, California Academy of Sciences, Hopkins Marine Station, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and California State University, Monterey Bay.
Editor's note: You may reach Potts at email@example.com or (408) 459-4417. For color scenes of coral reefs in Australia and Papua New Guinea, call (408) 459-2495.