Science

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Lucy Pemoni/AP
Recently discovered orange bamboo
coral.

Coral Species in Hawaii Is Among Earth's Oldest

March 30, 2009 01:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Researchers who've found a 4,265-year-old coral species off the Hawaiian coast warn that the coral beds are threatened by fishing and poaching.

Reef Protection Is Essential

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A team of researchers led by Texas A&M University scientist Brendan Roark found a species of coral off the coast of Hawaii that is believed to be more than 42 centuries years old, according to carbon dating technology. The Associated Press reported that the species, and others in Hawaii's coral beds, are at risk from fishing and poaching.

"The extreme age of the coral beds and their very slow growth, combined with the high levels of biodiversity surrounding the coral beds, means that protecting these reefs from further damage has to be a top priority," Roark told the AP.
The coral has been identified as "among the oldest continuously living organisms on the planet." But despite international laws protecting coral beds, fishermen whose nets and fishing lines touch the ocean floor, as well as poachers seeking coral material for jewelry, have put the species at risk, reported the AP.

In 2008, overfishing was pinpointed by the journal Environmental Conservation as "the primary culprit in the decline of popular reef fishes in the main Hawaiian islands," according to an editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser. Parrotfish and goatfish are considered particularly "vulnerable to overharvesting," prompting the editorial, which called for a "broad approach" to conservation.
But coral reef conservationists have made progress recently. In January, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced they would fund 15 grants of more than $2 million for "projects in Hawaii, three U.S. territories, two Pacific Freely Associated States and seven countries." The funding will go toward education in local communities and conservation management, according to the NOAA.

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Background: Overfishing in Hawaii's coral reefs

In July 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported on "the steep decline" in fish species found in "coral reefs encircling the Hawaiian Islands," which scientists blamed on overfishing. Furthermore, the algae-eating species most at risk are considered crucial to the health of coral reefs. Compounding the issue is the fact that Pacific island nations' local authorities "have little understanding of how many fish are being removed from coral reefs by small-scale, subsistence fishermen."

Historical Context: Clinton's nature preserve

Conflict between conservationists and local fishermen has been an issue in the past. In December 2000, former President Bill Clinton established "the largest United States nature preserve," an 84-million-acre underwater area near Hawaii's northwest islands in an attempt to protect "coral reefs and other wildlife," reported The New York Times. The preserve is home to almost half of the fish caught by Hawaii's commercial fishermen, including "pink and red snapper and sea bass," thus threatening the locals' livelihoods.

Fisherman Jim Cook, former chairman of the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council, told The New York Times that Clinton's preserve "should be renamed the 'new Hawaiian Territorial Act' as it gives the great white father in Washington control of Hawaiian resources."

Related Topic: Other threats to marine life

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are turning oceans acidic, and the problem could wreak havoc on fish, coral reefs and other marine life. Earlier this year, a group of 150 marine scientists from 26 countries issued a warning to political leaders that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced before ecosystems are severely damaged by ocean acidification. In the Monaco Declaration, made on Jan. 30 in anticipation of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, they said that the effects of acidification are already apparent.
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