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Coral reefs under threat
In the Literature.

Here, GNN posts the abstracts of six papers about what threatens coral reef ecosystems related to the GNN article Sex in the reef: How to tell coral species apart


Microbial diseases of corals and global warming.

Coral bleaching and other diseases of corals have increased dramatically during the last few decades. As outbreaks of these diseases are highly correlated with increased sea-water temperature, one of the consequences of global warming will probably be mass destruction of coral reefs. The causative agent(s) of a few of these diseases have been reported: bleaching of Oculina patagonica by Vibrio shiloi; black band disease by a microbial consortium; sea-fan disease (aspergillosis) by Aspergillus sydowii; and coral white plague possibly by Sphingomonas sp. In addition, we have recently discovered that Vibrio coralyticus is the aetiological agent for bleaching the coral Pocillopora damicornis in the Red Sea. In the case of coral bleaching by V. shiloi, the major effect of increasing temperature is the expression of virulence genes by the pathogen. At high summer sea-water temperatures, V. shiloi produces an adhesin that allows it to adhere to a beta-galactoside-containing receptor in the coral mucus, penetrate into the coral epidermis, multiply intracellularly, differentiate into a viable-but-not-culturable (VBNC) state and produce toxins that inhibit photosynthesis and lyse the symbiotic zooxanthellae. In black band disease, sulphide is produced at the coral-microbial biofilm interface, which is probably responsible for tissue death. Reports of newly emerging coral diseases and the lack of epidemiological and biochemical information on the known diseases indicate that this will become a fertile area of research in the interface between microbial ecology and infectious disease.

Environ Microbiol. 2002 Jun;4(6):318-26.

Trawling damage to Northeast Atlantic ancient coral reefs.

This contribution documents widespread trawling damage to cold-water coral reefs at 840-1300 m depth along the West Ireland continental shelf break and at 200 m off West Norway. These reefs are spectacular but poorly known. By-catches from commercial trawls for deep-water fish off West Ireland included large pieces (up to 1 m(2)) of coral that had been broken from reefs and a diverse array of coral-associated benthos. Five azooxanthellate scleractinarian corals were identified in these by-catches, viz. Desmophyllum cristagalli, Enallopsammia rostrata, Lophelia pertusa, Madrepora oculata and Solenosmilia variabilis. Dating of carbonate skeletons using (14)C accelerator mass spectrometry showed that the trawled coral matrix was at least 4550 years old. Surveys by remotely operated vehicles in Norway showed extensive fishing damage to L. pertusa reefs. The urgent need for deep-water coral conservation measures is discussed in a Northeast Atlantic context.

Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2002 Mar 7;269(1490):507-11.

Marine biodiversity hotspots and conservation priorities for tropical reefs.

Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse of shallow water marine ecosystems but are being degraded worldwide by human activities and climate warming. Analyses of the geographic ranges of 3235 species of reef fish, corals, snails, and lobsters revealed that between 7.2% and 53.6% of each taxon have highly restricted ranges, rendering them vulnerable to extinction. Restricted-range species are clustered into centers of endemism, like those described for terrestrial taxa. The 10 richest centers of endemism cover 15.8% of the world's coral reefs (0.012% of the oceans) but include between 44.8 and 54.2% of the restricted-range species. Many occur in regions where reefs are being severely affected by people, potentially leading to numerous extinctions. Threatened centers of endemism are major biodiversity hotspots, and conservation efforts targeted toward them could help avert the loss of tropical reef biodiversity.

Science. 2002 Feb 15;295(5558):1280-4.

Erosion vs. recovery of coral reefs after 1998 El Nino: Chagos reefs, Indian Ocean.

Three years after most corals died on the central Indian Ocean reefs of Chagos, erosion and recovery were studied to 30 m depth. Mortality was near-total to 15 m deep in northern atolls, and to > 35 m in central and southern atolls. Some reef surfaces have 'dropped' 1.5 m due to the loss of dense coral thickets. Coral bioerosion is substantial, reducing 3-D reef 'structure' and forming unconsolidated rubble. Juvenile corals are abundant, though mostly on eroding or unstable substrates, and are of less robust species. Reef fish abundance and diversity at 15 m depth remains high; species dependent on corals have diminished, while some herbivores and detritivores have increased. A new sea surface temperature (SST) data set shows that mean SST has risen 0.65 degree C since 1950. The critical SST causing the mortality in Chagos was 29.9 degrees C.

Ambio. 2002 Feb;31(1):40-8.

Derelict fishing gear in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands: diving surveys and debris removal in 1999 confirm threat to coral reef ecosystems.

Marine debris threatens Northwestern Hawaiian Islands' (NWHI) coral reef ecosystems. Debris, a contaminant, entangles and kills endangered Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi), coral, and other wildlife. We describe a novel multi-agency effort using divers to systematically survey and remove derelict fishing gear from two NWHI in 1999. 14 t of derelict fishing gear were removed and debris distribution, density, type and fouling level documented at Lisianski Island and Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Reef debris density ranged from 3.4 to 62.2 items/km2. Trawl netting was the most frequent debris type encountered (88%) and represented the greatest debris component recovered by weight (35%), followed by monofilament gillnet (34%), and maritime line (23%). Most debris recovered, 72%, had light or no fouling, suggesting debris may have short oceanic circulation histories. Our study demonstrates that derelict fishing gear poses a persistent threat to the coral reef ecosystems of the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Mar Pollut Bull 2001 Dec;42(12):1301-12.

The future of coral reefs.

Coral reefs, with their millions of species, have changed profoundly because of the effects of people, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Reefs are subject to many of the same processes that affect other human-dominated ecosystems, but some special features merit emphasis: (i) Many dominant reef builders spawn eggs and sperm into the water column, where fertilization occurs. They are thus particularly vulnerable to Allee effects, including potential extinction associated with chronic reproductive failure. (ii) The corals likely to be most resistant to the effects of habitat degradation are small, short-lived "weedy" corals that have limited dispersal capabilities at the larval stage. Habitat degradation, together with habitat fragmentation, will therefore lead to the establishment of genetically isolated clusters of inbreeding corals. (iii) Increases in average sea temperatures by as little as 1 degrees C, a likely result of global climate change, can cause coral "bleaching" (the breakdown of coral-algal symbiosis), changes in symbiont communities, and coral death. (iv) The activities of people near reefs increase both fishing pressure and nutrient inputs. In general, these processes favor more rapidly growing competitors, often fleshy seaweeds, and may also result in explosions of predator populations. (v) Combinations of stress appear to be associated with threshold responses and ecological surprises, including devastating pathogen outbreaks. (vi) The fossil record suggests that corals as a group are more likely to suffer extinctions than some of the groups that associate with them, whose habitat requirements may be less stringent.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 May 8;98(10):5419-25.

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