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Monday, March 15, 1999 Published at 14:22 GMT


Coral crusade

Beneath the beauty of the reef most of the coral is dead

By Roger Harrabin of BBC Radio 4's Today programme

It is far cry from Westminster, but Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's visit to the idyllic Maldives islands carries a serious purpose.

Roger Harrabin on the crisis facing the world's coral reefs
Scientific reports have confirmed the bad news first mooted last year about massive destruction to coral reefs caused by a sudden increase in sea temperatures in 1998.

Mr Prescott, on his way back from an official visit to India, stopped off in the Maldives to see the damage to the coral in the Indian Ocean for himself.

El Nino effect

Like most of the tourists who come to the islands, Mr Prescott has been snorkelling in the clear waters.

[ image: John Prescott wanted to see the damage for himself]
John Prescott wanted to see the damage for himself
But what most do not realise as they gaze at the fish around the reefs is that the corals on which the reef system depends have been decimated by last year's surge in sea temperature.

The ocean current known as El Nino is thought to be mainly responsible. The US State Department says that climate change, probably fuelled by pollution, is also almost certainly implicated.

In some areas more than 95% of shallow water hard corals have died. The coral has been killed by warm bodies of water being pushed through the oceans by the El Nino current.

"This coral bleaching event has been the worst ever recorded," says Jason Rubens of the Global Reef Monitoring Network.

"The damage to coral particularly in the Indian Ocean has been spectacular and that damage has spread to the Great Barrier Reef, most parts of South-East Asia, some parts of the Pacific and recently parts of the Caribbean."

Obligation to help

In the Indian Ocean, El Nino coincidentally struck at the hottest time of the year, and in a year when background temperatures of air and water globally were the highest recorded.

[ image: The fish population is threatened too]
The fish population is threatened too
The effect was to destroy the tiny invertebrates called polyps whose skeletons build the structure of the reefs and could not withstand a dramatic change in temperature.

As Mr Prescott descended on his fact-finding dive, he immediately found himself surrounded by shoals of multi-coloured fish.

The coral reef looked wonderful. But in fact the scientists estimate coral death at around 80%. Mr Prescott gave his reaction to what he had seen.

"It is tragic that something as beautiful as a coral reef can be lost in such a manner. But we can prevent it if we do more and I feel we have an obligation to do something about it," he said.

The results of the mass coral death are also potentially devastating economically.

[ image: Dr Susan Clark]
Dr Susan Clark
"They provide fisheries for the local population and for exports, an excellent form of sea defence against strong wave energy, storms and sea level increase. Also they are important for generating tourism revenue," explains Dr Susan Clark of Newcastle University, who has been researching in the Maldives.

It is impossible to tell yet how the fisheries will react in the medium term to the huge death of coral.

But it is likely that the reef building capacity of the coral will be desperately needed for protection from the waves by coastal communities under threat from sea level rise caused by a global rise in temperature.

Mr Prescott said his visit would provide ammunition for future discussions on the need to protect the oceans and to cut the gases pollution which may fuel global warming.

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