Janet Silvera, Senior Gleaner Writer
Rick MacPherson, director of conservation, Coral Reef Alliance.
Coral reef degradation could result in annual losses of US$100 million to $300 million to the Caribbean tourism industry by 2015, marine scientists are predicting.
Rick MacPherson, director of conservation programmes with Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), said at a Turks and Caicos conference this week that almost two thirds of the region's reefs were under threat.
Coastal development, he said, threatens 33 per cent of the reefs, while land-based sources of pollution have harmed 35 per cent, and over-fishing more than 60 per cent.
80 per cent decline
"Caribbean reefs have suffered an 80 per cent decline in cover during the past three decades, while 80 to 90 per cent of elkhorn and staghorn coral is gone," MacPherson said in his presentation at the 10th annual Sustainable Tourism Conference (STC-10).
Senior research associate from Oxford University's Centre for the Environment, Dr Murray Simpson, another conference speaker, said this new reality includes a potential geographic and seasonal shift in tourism demand which will swing business away from the region.
Research in 2004 showed that 70 per cent of coral reefs were at risk of collapse because of human pressures, up from 58 per cent in 2002.
Underscoring that only a very tiny portion of the sea bottom is covered by coral reefs, 0.09 per cent, with a total area about the size of Arizona or the United Kingdom, the experts say they are home or nursery ground for 25 per cent of all known marine species.
Dive tourism hardest hit
MacPherson said the dive tourism industry in the Caribbean would be the hardest hit, should the quality of the dive experience be diminished.
He further warned that the effects of such a loss would be felt not only by tourism but sectors such as medicine.
"Fifty per cent of current cancer medication research focuses on marine organisms found on coral reefs," he said.
"The drug AZT, which has prolonged the lives of thousands suffering from AIDS, comes through sponge species from coral reefs."
The world's coral reefs, he said, yield economic value of more than US$100 billion per year from food alone.
"They are the primary source of protein for over one billion people," said the conservationist.
"Coastal tourism generates 85 per cent of all tourism - a US$385 billion dollar industry."
However, there is, he says, an economic disconnect in the annual investment in research, monitoring and management, which is less than US$100 million.