Mass Extinction of Coral Reefs Worldwide Predicted if Nations Fail to Reduce Use of Fossil Fuels Soon
Press Release Date: September 30, 2009
Location: Washington, D.C.
An Oceana analysis released today shows that ocean acidification, resulting from massive carbon dioxide emissions over the past decades, is likely to drastically change marine ecosystems worldwide. Oceana’s analysis, which draws heavily on published scientific literature, predicts a mass extinction of coral reefs in both tropical and colder deep waters this century. These die-offs will result from the absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans, which leads to a lowering of pH, creating a more acidic environment for marine life.
Acidification reduces the ability of marine animals such as corals, crabs, lobsters, clams and oysters to create calcium carbonate skeletons and shells, which will likely reduce their survival rates, and their ability to mature and reproduce. Such a decline and widespread death of coral reefs will cost society billions of dollars annually in lost fishing and tourism revenue and will jeopardize the coastal protection services that coral reefs otherwise provide.
“Ocean acidification is a consequence of climate change that we don’t hear much about, but one that will change life as we know it in the coming decades if we don’t act now,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana. “Marine animals that use carbonate to make their shells will suffer – including species that are vital components of marine ecosystems, and many that have tremendous economic value.”
Immediate Action Needed to Save Coral Reefs and Marine Life: Major CO2 Cuts Required
To protect coral reefs and the ecosystems that depend on them, we must stabilize carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at or below 350 parts per million (ppm); however, current levels already have reached 385 ppm. To achieve this ambitious goal, industrialized nations must slash global carbon emissions by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020 and 80 to 95 percent by 2050.
Oceana describes a framework of actions for policymakers, business leaders and the public to reduce carbon emissions and prevent massive die-offs of marine ecosystems, including:
- Adopt a policy of stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million or below
- Promote energy efficiency and low carbon fuels
- Transition quickly to alternative energy sources
- Regulate carbon releases
- Preserve natural resilience of marine ecosystems by protecting them from overfishing and pollution
What’s at Stake Now and in the Near Future
Many marine ecosystems are already suffering the consequences of increased acidity. Some locations at risk from ocean acidification include the Hawaiian coral reefs, the U.S. Pacific coast, Alaskan cold-water corals and the Great Barrier Reef.
Economic losses related to widespread acidification will likely be enormous. For example, coral reefs off the coasts of the Hawaiian Islands produce approximately $360 million in economic benefits annually. Since those reefs are isolated and located in cooler high-latitude waters, they are likely to be at a higher risk from ocean acidification. Cold water absorbs more carbon dioxide than warm water, so corals in cooler waters will likely be affected by acidification sooner than others.
Global shellfish farming is worth an estimated 10 billion dollars annually. The U.S. revenue from shellfish fisheries is an estimated 17 million dollars annually. However, laboratory studies have shown that growth rates of shells in both mussels and oysters will likely decrease over the coming decades as acidification worsens and this may affect the bottom lines in those industries.
Deep-sea corals, such as those in Alaskan waters are expected to feel the brunt of ocean acidification earlier than their tropical counterparts. This raises concern since more than half of U.S. commercial fish landings come from Alaskan waters. Many of these fish rely on cold-water corals as a place to feed, reproduce and hide from predators. Also, these deep water corals and associated organisms have recently been recognized as offering ingredients for potential treatments for cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and skin conditions, and may prove to provide other lifesaving medical advancements – if they do not first succumb to ocean acidification.
“The ripple effects of accelerating acidification throughout marine ecosystems will be far-reaching,” said Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb, the primary author of the report. “But we can prevent this tragic outcome by improving energy efficiency and transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.”
Oceana is an international ocean conservation group, which works to protect and restore marine ecosystems from many threats, including climate change. For more information, go to www.oceana.org/climate.
An embargoed copy of the report can be accessed at this link.