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BANGKOK, Thailand (September 11, 2001 - PINA Nius Online)---Papua New Guinea is on the front line of the growing battle to save the world's reefs, according to scientists who compiled the most detailed assessment yet of coral reefs.

Papua New Guinea is the world's fifth largest reef nation, their new study confirmed.

But the scientists said these precious marine ecosystems occupy a much smaller area of the planet than previously assumed. Although distributed in 101 countries and territories, where they are vital for fisheries, coastal protection, tourism and wildlife, they now occupy less than one-tenth of one percent of the oceans.

Their World Atlas of Coral Reefs, prepared by the United Nations Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC), provides a new global estimate for coral reefs worldwide.

"Our new Atlas clearly shows that coral reefs are under assault," says Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director. "They are rapidly being degraded by human activities. They are over-fished, bombed and poisoned. They are smothered by sediment, and choked by algae growing on nutrient rich sewage and fertilizer run-off.

"They are damaged by irresponsible tourism and are being severely stressed by the warming of the world's oceans. Each of these pressures is bad enough in itself, but together, the cocktail is proving lethal."

Papua New Guinea has 13,840 square kilometers of reef, according to the study. It follows Indonesia, with 51,020 square kilometers, Australia (48,960 square kilometers) and the Philippines (25,060 square kilometers). France comes in fourth, with 14,280 square kilometers of reefs located in its overseas territories. [NOTE: 1 square kilometer = 0.4 square miles]

But 46 percent of Papua New Guinea's reefs are identified as threatened.

The scientists say their findings give new urgency to protect and conserve these important, valuable and seductively beautiful habitats.

Says Mark Spalding, lead author for the Atlas: "Many coral reefs are under the ownership of the world's wealthiest nations. Between them, Australia, France, the UK and the USA account for over one quarter of the world's coral reefs -- a critical resource in powerful hands.

"Previous estimates of coral reef area, which didn't have the benefit of our detailed maps, have been double or in some cases ten times over what we have now found to be the case.

"Furthermore, we also found that coral reefs are degrading fast in almost every country of the world. The Atlas provides a critical baseline and a focus for action to reverse these trends."

Human Benefits

Coral reefs are an important source of food for hundreds of millions of people, many of whom have no other source of animal protein. They also provide income and employment through tourism, and marine recreation, and export fisheries, and for many coastal villages, and some entire nations are the only source of this income and employment.

They offer countless other benefits to humans, including supplying compounds for medicines. AZT, a treatment for people with HIV infections is based on chemicals extracted from a Caribbean reef sponge and more than half of all new cancer drug research focuses on marine organisms.

Often referred to as the "rainforests of the oceans," coral reefs host an extraordinary variety of marine plants and animals (perhaps up to 2 million) including one quarter of all marine fish species. It has been estimated that so far only about 10% of these species have been described by scientists.

The Atlas contains the latest information on coral biodiversity. The most diverse region of the world for coral reefs is centered on the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, with between 500 and 600 species of coral in each of these countries.

Unfortunately, these are also some of the most threatened coral reefs in the world. In Indonesia, 82% are "at risk," threatened by such human activities as the illegal practice of blast fishing. This is the most destructive fishing method on reefs. Explosives are typically thrown towards the reef and explode on the water surface. The shock wave from the blast kills the majority of fish species on the reef and causes severe damage to its structure.

Threat and Conservation

This new Atlas from UNEP-WCMC builds on earlier scientific work that found some 58 percent of the world's coral reefs were threatened by human activities. It includes new information on the impacts of global warming and coral bleaching, including the El Niño.

The Atlas also provides new data on the spread of coral diseases that affect 106 types of coral in 54 countries. It shows that entire coral reefs have been decimated by disease in the Caribbean.

For the first time, the Atlas also maps the 660 marine protected areas worldwide that incorporate coral reefs. It notes that unfortunately, many of the protected areas exist on paper only, that they are poorly managed and have little or no support or enforcement.

It says they often only focus on controlling the direct impacts of humans on coral reefs ignoring the more remote sources of threats to reefs, notably pollution and sedimentation from the adjacent land.

Says Toepfer: "Often remote from reefs, deforestation, urban development and intensive agriculture are now producing vast quantities of sediments and pollutants which are pouring into the sea and rapidly degrading coral reefs in close proximity to many shores.

"UNEP, as secretariat to the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Sources is trying to coordinate an integrated response to this problem. This and related topics will be high on the agenda of the upcoming GPA ministerial review in Montreal later this year."

Economic Potential

The Atlas looks at the economic arguments for better reef management and the potential income from 15 million scuba divers worldwide. It describes a new database listing 2,500 dive centers in 91 countries. It says that diving, well planned, can add value to the reefs for local people and promote conservation.

Tourism can become a force for good, giving an added value to reefs in the eyes of the local communities, and often providing a direct income, through park fees, for the management of marine protected areas.

According to Dr. J.E.N. Veron, Chief Scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and a contributor to the Atlas, reefs are among the most valuable assets of developing countries and if managed well they can be a permanent source of foreign income.

"Australia's foreign earnings from tourist industries in the Great Barrier Reef alone is greater than income from all of Australian fishing industries combined," says Veron.

Signs of Hope

"One of the saddest facts about the demise of reefs is that it is utterly nonsensical," says Spalding. "Protecting and managing reefs is not just for the good of the fishes. In every case it also leads to economic and social benefits for local communities."

"We now have dozens of examples from around the world of small-scale, often community led, systems for managing reefs. These have led to massive booms in productivity and some very happy local fishermen. They stand out as clear sparks of hope which we must use to teach others the message," Spalding adds.

The most important global initiative to respond to the challenges documented in the Atlas is the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN), in which UNEP and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center have joined with other partners to reverse the decline in coral reefs. After two years of preparation, the action phase of ICRAN was recently launched with a major grant from the United Nations Foundation (see

"Through ICRAN, many separate activities are being brought together in a coherent way to make a real difference on the ground, where peoples' needs count," says Toepfer. "The ICRAN Partners are now working to raise the significant financial resources needed to put coral reef management in all these regions on a more sustainable basis. We hope that additional support will allow us to extend ICRAN to all the coral reef areas of the world. The Atlas we are launching here today is an important supporting tool for such practical action."

UNEP has established a Coral Reef Unit to take the lead in the UN system on this issue and has agreed to support the ICRAN Coordinating Unit (see It is also working actively to promote responsible tourism in coral areas, and other sensitive environments, via its Tour Operators Initiative (see and is one of the United Nations coordinators for the 2002 International Year of Ecotourism.

"The growth of mass-tourism, combined with the boom in popularity of scuba diving, has brought the plight of coral reefs to public attention across the planet," says Toepfer. "Let us all now commit ourselves to the strenuous efforts needed to respond to the crisis of declining coral reefs documented in this Atlas, and to ensure that this unique ecosystem continues to feed, protect and dazzle us and our descendants for generations to come.

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