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Coral Reef Conservation Bill Up for Consideration

Intensified storms, major disease outbreaks, regular bleaching and exceedingly warm waters are only making coral reefs off Hawaii and Florida more fragile, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill are poised to pass legislation that could beef up reef resiliency.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Intensified storms, major disease outbreaks, regular bleaching and exceedingly warm waters are only making coral reefs off Hawaii and Florida more fragile, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill are poised to pass legislation that could beef up reef resiliency.

About 21 years ago, lawmakers put together the Coral Reef Conservation Act, carved out to conserve and restore the nation’s reefs with an emphasis on responding to the changing climate and reducing the pollution impact from land.

But since then, the world has watched bleachings of coral reefs each year as the delicate organisms come under stress from overly warm water, extended marine heat waves and continued rising carbon emissions. Stony tissue coral loss, a disease which first appeared in 2014, also has become endemic to most of the reefs in Florida and has spread to other places like Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Belize and throughout the Caribbean.

The bottom line is cutting but clear: Marine health is on a decline.

University of Miami professor of marine biology Andrew Baker told members of a House Natural Resources subcommittee Tuesday there is no question that unless humans deal meaningfully with the source of carbon emissions, what is done now in terms of preservation is merely buying time — and perhaps just a couple decades at that — for corals' survival.

“I like to think of coral reefs as a jigsaw puzzle that we have scrambled through human activities,” Baker testified. “We have moved all the pieces around, we have thrown some on the floor and some have been flipped over. But so far, we haven’t actually thrown any pieces away and to anyone who has done a jigsaw puzzle, you know it is incredibly frustrating to find yourself without pieces at the end of it. We still have those pieces, so the challenge is how do we avoid throwing them away as we try to get climate change under control.”

As problems continue to crop up in the saga of reef conservation, solutions, such as new technology and restorative approaches for sick or dying coral have emerged, too.

This is precisely what gives Baker hope when it comes to the future of critical reefs that don't just provide natural habitats and sustain important wildlife, but also serve roles from revenue generator to job creator to natural barrier that allow human beings and the sea to cohabitate in greater harmony.  

Representative for Puerto Rico Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, a Republican, threw her support to reauthorize the bill because the territory is surrounded by 1,900 square miles of coral reef systems that generate over $2 billion in income and regional domestic product just for Puerto Rico. Over 3,000 full-time and part-time jobs on the island are thanks to coral reefs.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported last year that annually, coral reefs provide flood protection benefits to over 4,200 people in Puerto Rico and over $184 million in valued property.

“They also have the capacity to absorb up to 90% of oncoming wave energy, reducing the impact of storm surges,” Colon remarked — a serious consideration given the impending arrival of hurricane season, which is now just weeks away.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association estimates 93% of Puerto Rico’s reefs are threatened and more than 11% are severely damaged following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Overall, the reefs surrounding Puerto Rico — an island populated by over 3 million — are in “fair” condition, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“But they still need considerable care,” Colon said.

That care will come through investments into available and emerging technologies. More investment could be made now into spawning baby corals in a controlled environment so they can later be used to create more resilient reefs, Baker suggested.

A coral reef scientist for nearly 50 years, Robert Richmond, professor and director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, suggested to lawmakers that the bill’s language be tightened up before passage, specifically, making terms for funding grants and waivers for U.S. territories or Freely Associated States — like American Samoa — to participate in restorative action more clear.

This level of participation isn’t just about making the bureaucratic process more effective, he explained. It is also about giving communities on the ground the flexibility they need to meet challenges that change year to year.

In American Samoa, Kelley Anderson Tagarino said Tuesday, it is abundantly clear how pressing that need is and how little time there is to waste.

Global sea rise the world over is up about an eighth of an inch per year but in Samoa, Tagarino says they are sinking.

“In the past decade, we have sunk more than half a foot. Our current relative rate of sea level rise, which includes island subsidence is .76 inches per year. That’s where we get our 7.6 inches of land lost in the past decade. If it continues by 2060, we will have seen a sea level rise of more than two feet over the 2009 sea level rate,” she said.

It’s causing saltwater intrusion into drinking water — Samoans are completely reliant on ground water wells — and damaging the island’s infrastructure. There has been a slight slow down in subsidence last year but Tagarino and fellow researchers aren’t completely sure why. NASA has joined Tagarino to study it so a resiliency plan can be fleshed out for locals.

The legislation proposes vesting $31 million this year and then pouring another $1 million to $1.5 million on top of that amount each year through 2025.

Those funds will help make corals adaptive if the moonshot of drastically reducing carbon emissions — which predominantly involves divesting from fossil fuels on a massive scale — fails. The U.S. has set a goal of cleaving carbon emissions by 50% by the end of this decade.

The real trick will be to hold U.S. coral reef systems together even while waters keep warming, experts and lawmakers agreed. But by addressing local stressors today, it might buy reefs just enough time to deal with effects of climate change later.

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