BOSTON, Oct 19, 2007,— The inclusion of coral on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species 2007 is the first result of an ambitious marine life observation project concerned with global conservation.
The decision to add corals to the Red List was based on studies initiated a little more than a year ago by the Global Marine Species Assessment, a joint effort of the World Conservation Union and Conservation International.
Ten species of coral in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands — two in critical danger of extinction and one that is considered vulnerable — have been included on the Red List, the most detailed guide to the global state of conservation — or decline — of plants and animals worldwide.
This is the first in a series of assessments and additions to the list focused on marine species around the world, said Kent Carpenter, the coordinator of the Global Marine Species Assessment, which is based in the biological sciences department of Old Dominion University in Virginia.
The Global Marine Species Assessment compiles information about all known species of vertebrates and a selection of invertebrates and plants. Then it adds this information to the World Conservation Union’s Species Information Service database.
The experts responsible for the project hope to have detailed data on the status of 20,000 marine species from around the world by 2010, thus enabling them to determine the relative risk of extinction of each one according to the Red List’s criteria and categories.
So far, there are just 1,530 marine species among the 41,415 flora and fauna species included on the Red List this year in the various categories, ranging from “extinct” to “not evaluated.” According to Global Marine Species Assessment scientists, sea life has not been adequately studied.
“The marine world has been relatively little studied and explored in comparison with land species,” said Stuart Banks, an oceanographer with the Charles Darwin Foundation, in an interview.
“The lack of assessment of marine species is due to the limited access to information, as well as logistical factors. Groups as important as seaweed and coral, which form productive environments, which sustain entire communities, have been very difficult to identify,” Banks said.
For Stefan Hain, the head of the Coral Reef Unit at the United Nations Environment Program, this has a simple explanation.
There is a phenomenon of “out of sight, out of mind” — “What you cannot see is very difficult to protect. It is much easier to follow the population of species on land because we can observe them directly,” he said in an interview for this report.
The Charles Darwin foundation provided data to the Global Marine Species Assessment and the World Conservation Union for the conservation of species in the Galpagos, and it has been fundamental in the evaluation of species added to the Red List.
The data for the first report on Galpagos corals were obtained by Carpenter and other researchers following a series of workshops and field studies carried out in the last year at the Charles Darwin Science Station, which is based in that Ecuadorian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.
The Red List indicates that the floreana coral and Wellington’s solitary coral are critical endangered or at extremely high risk of extinction, and the Polycyathus isabela coral is vulnerable to extinction.
Coral reefs are formed by plates of calcium carbonate produced over thousands of years by tiny animals known as polyps. Coral algae and a vast array of flora and fauna live inside of them. The reefs are true communities that serve as host and habitat to one of every four marine species.
The report indicates that Ecuador’s corals have been particularly sensitive to temperature changes, primarily those related to the cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Nino, a warm current of surface water flowing from west to east across the Pacific. The 1982-1983 El Nino was particularly devastating.
According to Carpenter, global climate change is leading to the extinction of these species and a decline in their distribution in the world’s oceans.
The near disappearance of the floreana coral illustrates this threat. According to the report, 80 percent of it has been destroyed since the early 1980s, when its population was dispersed in six different areas of the Galpagos.
Furthermore, in the reefs of the tropical eastern Pacific there has been widespread bleaching of corals. The corals lose their color due to rising temperatures in the ocean and due to its declining salinity, Carpenter said.
Bleaching also occurs when the polyps are abandoned by the algae that feed them.
The health of coastal ecosystems is also affected by pollution and by fishing, which affect both the coral and the algae, because they have impacts on the entire food chain.
The Red List, which was presented Sept. 12, also assessed 74 algae of the Galpagos, 10 of them in critical danger and six possibly extinct.
According to Banks, the loss of species in the archipelago must be stopped through fisheries resource management and initiatives to ensure long-term sustainability.
“The most viable strategy is the implementation of measures to prevent factors like tourism and fishing from worsening the situation and compromising the natural recovery of these species,” he said.
But experts say the biggest challenge is to mitigate the effects of climate change on these especially vulnerable ecosystems.
“The question is how these ecosystems can adapt to the changes,” Banks said. In this aspect, the Galpagos are in a unique situation, like a socio-biological laboratory, with their multi-use reserve where “new measures could be learned for counteracting species loss.”
For Hain of the United Nations Environment Program, the main thing is “to make sure that the reefs are healthy and strong in order to cope with climate change.”