One-way Processes Speed Degradation of Coral Reefs

Efforts to protect coral reefs should be refocused on terminating self-reinforcing processes that accelerate degradation of these biological marvels, according to a Forum article published in the November 2004 issue of BioScience. The article, by Charles Birkeland of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, blames a series of “ratchets” — destructive forces that are hard to reverse — for the failure of most current efforts to halt continuing losses.


Birkeland identifies seven ecological ratchets that seem to contribute to the loss of coral reefs, including a decrease of corals’ reproductive success that may occur at lower population densities, the disproportionate survival of coral predators, and the ability of algae, which can prevent the establishment of new corals, to outgrow grazers. Birkeland also points to technological ratchets, economic ratchets, cultural ratchets, and conceptual ratchets. Technological advances such as scuba, night lights, monofilament nets, and the global positioning system, for example, make it easier for fishers to pursue coral reef fishes. Economic demand for rare and wild-caught fishes fosters investment in ever more sophisticated fishing equipment. And as expectations about coral reef productivity decrease, efforts to restore reefs are undermined. Birkeland proposes that organizations concerned about coral reefs should develop interventions that focus on preventing degradation, rather than on restoration. He also suggests that encouraging responsible stewardship would be easier if there were a return to local management of coral reef resources.

Journalists may obtain copies of the article, “Ratcheting Down the Coral Reefs,” by contacting Donna Royston, AIBS communications representative.

BioScience publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles covering a wide range of biological fields, including ecology. The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is an umbrella organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents over 80 member societies and organizations with a combined membership of over 200,000.

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