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March 3, 1997

Led by UCSC, UC becomes first academic partner in global coral reef initiative

By Robert Irion

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:

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.

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