[center:91a99241da]by: Kurt Loft
Originally Published: Feb. 17, 2003
TAMPA - Some call it the soul of the sea. A soul, they fear, that's dying.
The world's coral reefs, among the most complex ecosystems on Earth, are struggling against shifts in ocean temperature and overfishing. Both threaten these magnificent marine edifices and many of the species that make coral their home, scientists say.
How swift is the damage to these reefs, and what negative ripples will wash ashore? Can anything be done to restore their health?
Biologists and oceanographers hope to answer these questions as they study the state of coral systems, which also act as a barometer of climate change.
``The main threat is coral bleaching, which occurs because of warm temperatures,'' says Marj Awai, a curator at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. ``Corals are living things, and constantly growing. Their health is important because they're a habitat for a lot of animals, and the coral offers them protection.''
The destruction of global reefs, Awai adds, is analogous to cutting down millions of acres of trees.
``Corals are incredibly diverse,'' Awai says. ``People often compare them to the world's rain forests. But when they bleach out, the reef will die.''
Global warming is a possible cause of coral bleaching. And as of 2000, an estimated 27 percent of the world's coral reefs were severely damaged, a rise from 10 percent a decade ago, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.
Reefs live at the upper edge of their temperature tolerance, making them vulnerable to slight, if prolonged, change, says a report by the World Watch Institute, an environmental watchdog organization in Washington, D.C. The report notes that incremental warming above normal can put stress on the microscopic plants that live in coral tissue and provide reefs with their bounty of color.
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