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Time is running out to save Caribbean coral reefs

If you want to enjoy the Caribbean’s world-renowned coral reefs, you may only have another 1- to 20 years to do it. A United Nations-backed study warns that most of the region’s coral could die out over the next two decades as a result of the declining populations of fish and sea urchins that are necessary for the corals’ survival.

The study was authored by 90 coral researchers from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The researchers had completed their study by analyzing more than 350,000 previously-conducted surveys from nearly 100 locations around the Caribbean over the last 44 years. The study’s authors found that more than 50% of the Caribbean’s original coral populations are gone.

The authors attribute the widespread coral deaths to algae, which encases coral with slime and smothers the tiny polyps that build the coral structures. Parrotfish and sea urchins have historically fed on this slime and thereby spared myriad coral reefs from asphyxiation. But urchin-killing diseases and human overfishing of the parrotfish have thinned out these natural slime-eaters and allowed the algae to invade more and more reefs with impunity.

And this algae hazard is in addition to the also-significant threat that corals in this region and all across the globe face in the long term from climate change. The study found that thus far, climate change has thus far played only a minor role in the Caribbean corals’ current plight.

The coral is not yet a lost cause, however. The researchers conclude that new restrictions on fishing and pollution could enable at least some of the reefs to make a comeback.

The study follows numerous earlier reports that have found grave damage to Caribbean corals in recent years. A 2012 study by the World Resources Institute warned that 75% of the region’s corals were in danger. That same year, the IUCN concurred that the region’s corals had largely collapsed due to overfishing and climate change.