Rainforests of the sea

Coral reefs: U.S. program of no- fishing zones aims to protect vital hubs of undersea life.

March 14, 2000

THE DAZZLING colors of a coral reef are a diver's delight.

But that collection of living bony fingers also provides food and shelter for fish and other sea creatures.

Reefs offer shoreline protection from the pounding of storms. Increasingly, they are also a source of pharmaceuticals.

Yet the world's coral reefs are in increasing danger -- from mercenary collectors, careless boating and fishing and ocean-dumped pollution that kills the tiny creatures that secrete limestone to build these spectacular fragile structures.

Ten percent of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed; another 30 percent could die off within the next 20 years at the current pace.

The federal government wants to give these threatened natural wonders a breathing spell by setting aside 20 percent of all U.S. coral reefs as protected ecological reserves, where fishing and certain kinds of boating would be barred.

The plan calls for more mapping and monitoring of the 6,500 square miles of coral reef in the United States, mostly in the Western Pacific but also off the coast of Florida and Texas.

Limiting human activity around these sea worlds not only protects an important part of the ecosystem but preserves the economic vitality of tourism industries dependent on the coral reefs. If the reefs die, so does the $2 billion a year business in the Florida Keys and Hawaii alone.

The U.S. action is a first step. Fighting pollution and excessive harvests of live coral remain serious challenges. So, too, does global warming, which scientists say is taking its first toll on the health of coral reefs.

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