Conserving Coastal Marine Ecosystems

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The Earth’s oceans teem with biodiversity, a veritable underwater rain forest that supplies countless foods, medicines, and raw materials. About 9,000 species of fish are exploited for food and constitute the primary source of protein for many coastal societies. Now bioprospectors, who search for new pharmaceutical drugs by analyzing the chemical compounds of plants and Rhinopias fishanimals of the world’s forests, are exploring marine environments.

We have only begun to understand the benefits we can derive from the sea.
Like the rain forests, the underwater world, is severely threatened. The sad plight of marine animals such as whales, seals, otters, and sea turtle is well known. However, the on-going disappearance of coral reefs worldwide may carry far more serious consequences for marine biodiversity. Some of the highest-recorded diversity exists on coral reefs, where a multitude of corals, fish, sea anemones, starfish, and urchins make their home, breed, and shelter their vulnerable young.

Clearly, the seas are not inexhaustible. In some of the world’s greatest fisheries, including the Gulf of California and Georges Bank, fishermen have seen declines in their catches drastic enough to warrant fishing bans. Throughout the tropics, pollution, siltation, and the use of cyanide and dynamite fishing are wreaking havoc on coral reefs, among the richest marine ecosystems.

CI began its coastal marine conservation projects ten years ago in the Gulf of California, still one of our two main program areas in Mexico. Over the past few years, a host of new marine programs have been added, ranging from the Abrolhos Reef in Brazil to Tubbataha in the Philippines to the spectacular Indispensable Reefs in the Solomon Islands, where we carried out our first Marine Rapid Assessment expedition in 1994.

CI extended its biodiversity conservation programs to the marine realm because marine biodiversity is a major component of global biodiversity. The strawberry coralavailable habitats – from the ocean trenches 35,000 feet deep to the air above occupied by birds – truly dwarf terrestrial ecosystems in size. Furthermore, we finds that a major portion of animal life is found in the ocean. While only one phylum of animals is restricted to the land, fully 14 are found exclusively in the marine realm. Yet, our ignorance of marine biodiversity equals our ignorance of the deepest and most remote rain forests. It is estimated that our total knowledge of the terrain of deep ocean trenches is roughly equivalent to an area the size of a tennis court. Every time we carry out investigations in these unusual ecosystems, we find a host of new, bizarre creatures.
Although marine science is well-established, its application in effective global conservation efforts is still in its infancy. During the next decade, we will expand our successful land-based approaches of conservation priority-setting, rapid field assessment, and conservation area management design to the marine realm.

Prioritizing marine ecosystems for conservation purposes requires a different approach from their terrestrial counterparts. Although no such prioritization scheme yet exists for the marine biome, with its ten years of experience in developing effective models for priority-setting in terrestrial ecosystems, CI is in a powerful position to spearhead this effort.

Some of the criteria used for selecting terrestrial priorities, such as levels of species diversity, can be directly applied in defining marine priorities. For example, New Guinea has become a global conservation priority because it harbors the world’s greatest diversity in reef corals and coral reef-associated organisms. In the Atlantic, the Brazilian reefs harbor several endemic reef species and even an endemic genus of reef-building coral. But ocean environments need their own prioritizing criteria as well. These criteria can include areas where there is ocean upwelling and primary productivity, proximity to human populations centers, and may others. CI is preparing a process for identifying which criteria are most important for determining coastal marine conservation priorities.

A trial expedition to the Indispensable Reefs in the Solomon Islands in 1994 demonstrated that CI’s RAP methodology could give fast, baseline biological information to marine resource managers. SO CI has begun a series of RAP surveys in the Asia and Pacific region’s Coral Triangle, roughly bounded by the Philippines to the north, Indonesia to the west, and Papua New Guinea and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the southeast. This region has the most extensive and biologically diverse coral reefs on the planet, and is also a major focal area of CI’s terrestrial conservation programs. In the Philippines, RAP will help to define and implement coastal conservation projects in the richest area of Palawan Province. Similarly, in Papua New Guinea, where there are still hundreds of square kilometers of pristine stretches of the world’s most biologically diverse coral reefs, we are using RAP to identify the most appropriate areas for establishing village-based marine conservation areas.

Finally, CI’s programs will explore the economic forces that drive marine resource degradation. We believe that solutions can come at the local community level, providing people with environmentally sound development options, and on the regional level, promoting industrial practices that support conservation.