From Navigation Hazard to Treasured Resource:
NOAA's Emerging Leadership in Coral Reef Conservation

From mapping and monitoring to managing reef resources and removing harmful debris, NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program supports effective management and sound science to preserve, sustain, and restore valuable coral reef ecosystems.


Diver with a healthy stand of Elkhorn coral (Acropora plamata). This species was listed as ‘threatened’ in May 2006 under the federal Endangered Species Act. Image courtesy of Wolcott Henry © 2005.

You have probably heard about the importance of coral reefs. You may have also heard that coral reefs are in serious decline throughout the world due to a myriad of impacts, many attributed to humans. This was not always the case.

In fact, coral reefs thrived for centuries and they may again thrive with proper management. In recent years, our understanding of the importance and function of coral reef ecosystems has grown, but much work remains if we are to restore and protect these valuable resources. This story chronicles U.S. efforts to protect its coral reefs and how NOAA came to lead those efforts.






From Navigational Hazards to Critical Marine Resources

Alexander D. Bache

Alexander D. Bache, second superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA.

Coral reefs are important sources of food, coastal protection, and income in over 100 countries around the world, creating millions of jobs and billions in income each year. Today, NOAA has more than 30 offices that work to understand and protect coral reefs and has developed hundreds of partnerships to help preserve U.S. coral reefs for future generations. However, NOAA’s predecessors did not always understand the importance of coral reefs to the nation.

In 1844, Alexander Dallas Bache was named Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. In many ways, Bache was a visionary, and led U.S. efforts to chart our coastlines to improve the safety and effectiveness of marine navigation. Concerned that reefs were navigational hazards, Bache believed coral reefs posed a significant threat. In 1851, he commissioned famed American naturalist, Louis Agassiz, to study coral reefs in Florida to determine what could be done about this problem.

“(Can) the growth of coral reefs be prevented, or the results remedied, which are so unfavorable to the safety of navigation?” Bache asked Professor Louis Agassiz.

“I do not see the possibility of limiting in any way the extraordinary increase of corals, beyond the bounds which nature itself has assigned to their growth,” replied the professor in his report on the Florida reefs.

How did the prevailing wisdom change so dramatically? Why do we now see coral reefs as critical resources rather than marine hazards?


From Early Exploration to Growing Signs of Global Environmental Distress

For thousands of years, our observations of the sea were confined to what could be observed from the ocean surface or the shore. Scientists began studying coral reefs in several places around the globe by the mid-19th century. Throughout the 20th century, our knowledge of corals reefs and our ability to study them greatly expanded with the invention of Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA), submersible vehicles, and satellites.

Diver counting reef fish for population studies

Scuba gear allows divers to get up close and personal with ocean life. Here, a NOAA diver conducts a bleaching survey of boulder star coral off of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, in October 2005. Click image for larger view and image credit.

Today, because of continued advancements in underwater technology, a broader spectrum of undersea research is possible at ever-greater depths, allowing us to examine, record, and analyze more and more of the ocean's mysteries.

In the last decades of the 20th century, global environmental consciousness began to emerge. Two global environmental summits – one held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972, the other in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 – highlighted the planet’s growing environmental crises and the need to balance future economic development with environmental protections that would foster sustainable development.

Ocean and coastal ecosystems faced increasing pressure as global population grew. The pressures on coral reef resources increased accordingly.


Coral Reef Conservation in the 1990s: An Era of International Cooperation

By the 1980s and 1990s, researchers around the world were sounding the alarm about the growing decline of coral reef ecosystems. Tropical and subtropical coral reefs, as well as related ecosystems like mangrove forests and seagrass beds, were facing serious degradation, primarily due to impacts from human activities. These damaging activities included:

  • over-harvesting of fish and other coral reef species for food, building materials, medicines, and international trade (for aquarium fish and ornamental purposes);
  • damaging fishing practices (like blast fishing and cyanide usage);
  • global climate change;
  • deteriorating water quality stemming from polluted runoff (such as sewage discharge, improperly managed coastal development, agriculture, and other land-use practices);
  • overuse from tourism and recreation;
  • pollution from ships; and
  • ship groundings from commercial and recreational vessels.

Natural threats like disease and hurricanes were also taking their toll.

On July 2, the 145 foot CASITAS ran aground on the northeast side of Pearl and Hermes Atoll, located 1,210 miles from Honolulu, Hawaii. These photos show reef damage above and below the water. Photos courtesy of Doug Helton, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration.

Because of these impacts, scientists and resource managers began pushing for international coordination to raise global awareness, share research findings and management successes, and leverage limited resources. In 1994, this idea became a reality when the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) was formed with support from NOAA scientists, the U.S. government, and other nations around the world. The ICRI provided the forum for sharing information and resources needed to protect coral reefs.

By the late 1990s, there were damaged or destroyed reefs in more than 90 countries. Scientists estimated that between 10 and 30 percent of global reefs had been destroyed or seriously damaged. Many believed that if this decline continued, it would likely lead to the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs within the next century.


The U.S. Responds to the International Coral Reef Crisis at Home

After helping lead these international coral reef efforts, the U.S. began work at home. Like their counterparts around the world, by the 1990s, U.S. coral reefs were showing signs of significant decline due to a range of natural and human impacts.

Between two and ten percent of the world’s coral reefs are in U.S. waters in the southern Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and western Pacific. The Florida Keys is the third largest coral reef tract in the world, contains the world’s largest seagrass bed, and provides a home to over 5,500 marine species. The coral reefs in the U.S. Caribbean are beautiful, diverse, and central to the local economies. The U.S. Pacific territories, like Guam and American Samoa, have extensive coral reefs covering more than 10,000 square miles.

In response, the U.S. launched a national Coral Reef Initiative (USCRI) in 1996 to mirror ICRI. As one of the world’s first national coral reef initiatives, USCRI was designed to strengthen and supplement existing efforts to conserve and manage coral reefs and related ecosystems in U.S. waters.

At the founding of USCRI that August, President Bill Clinton recognized the critical value of coral reefs to the United States:

"Pollution, overfishing, and overuse have put many of our unique reefs at risk. Their disappearance would destroy the habitat of countless species. It would unravel the web of marine life that holds the potential for new chemicals, new medicines, unlocking new mysteries. It would have a devastating effect on the coastal communities from Cairns to Key West, Florida - communities whose livelihood depends upon the reefs.”

Over the next two years, two events catalyzed major new developments for reef conservation in the U.S. First, 1997 was declared as the International Year of the Reef (IYOR) to raise global awareness about coral reefs and the challenges they faced. NOAA became heavily involved with IYOR, helping to lead national and international education campaigns in partnership with over 50 nations and organizations worldwide.


Logo for International Year of the Reef 1997.

Second, in 1998, there was a devastating “coral bleaching” event. The mass bleaching event, caused by an extended period of unusually warm global water temperatures, destroyed or damaged an additional 16 percent of the world’s reefs. This bleaching event coincided with the infamous 1997-1998 El Nino/Southern Oscillation event and raised global awareness that just one major environmental event could have devastating and simultaneous effects on coral reefs in many regions.


The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force

With the formation of ICRI and USCRI, the completion of the IYOR, and the 1998 mass bleaching event as a backdrop, 1998 marked a turning point in U.S. coral reef initiatives. In the coming years, many new conservation milestones would occur in quick succession.

In June 1998, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order creating the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. The Task Force was (and is) co-chaired by the Departments of Commerce (delegated to NOAA) and Interior, and included nine other federal agencies – all those who had an impact on or a mandate to protect coral reef ecosystems. The Task Force also included all states (2), territories (5), and freely associated states (3) that had reef-building corals within their waters.

Butterfly Fish

Coral reefs are home to a wide range of marine organisms, such as this butterfly fish. Photo courtesy of Andy Bruckner, NOAA Fisheries.

The mission of the Task Force was (and is) to lead, coordinate, and strengthen U.S. government actions to better preserve and protect coral reef ecosystems. This body went beyond the multi-sector USCRI by coordinating planning and action among federal agencies, state, and territorial governments and nongovernmental partners.

To fulfill its mission, the Task Force members developed a National Coral Reef Action Plan (NAP) in 2000 with input from hundreds of stakeholders from universities, non-governmental organizations, local and state governments, and the private sector. The NAP was the first U.S. plan to comprehensively address the most pressing threats to coral reefs. The NAP became the nation’s roadmap to better understanding coral reefs and reducing impacts from human activities, providing the guiding framework for future priorities, strategies, and implementation plans.


NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program

On the heels of the NAP came the passage of the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000. This was the first national legislation that specifically mandated the protection of coral reef ecosystems in the U.S. This important legislation augmented existing mandates for NOAA and other federal agencies for the research and management of coral reef ecosystems.

Through this Act, NOAA was officially tasked with creating the Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP), which included two coral reef grant programs to fund coral reef conservation work outside the agency. Since 2000, NOAA has provided over $40 million through these programs for coral reef research, monitoring, mapping, and education.


As a principal steward of the nation's marine resources, NOAA helps coastal communities, managers, scientists and other partners to understand and sustainably manage coral reef ecosystems. Photo courtesy of Andy Bruckner, NOAA Fisheries.

In September 2002, NOAA's CRCP, in cooperation with the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, released A National Coral Reef Action Strategy. In 2003, the seven state and territory members of the Task Force released Local Action Strategies. Based on the long-term threats to coral reefs identified in the NAP, these strategies provided a blueprint for acting on these needs in the short term at the national and local levels.

The Coral Reef Conservation Act mandates a report to Congress every two years. NOAA and the Task Force sent a report card to Congress in 2005 on their progress since 2002, aptly called the Report to Congress on Implementation of the National Coral Reef Action Strategy. Every two to three years, NOAA also releases a major scientific report on the state of U.S. coral reef ecosystems.

Listen to a NOAA scientist discuss a major report of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, a quantitative status report on U.S. coral reef ecosystems. Click here to view full transcript.

Today, the CRCP is a major contributor to NOAA's coral reef research and management efforts and currently works with over 30 offices within NOAA. The CRCP conducts and supports activities in 12 major areas, including mapping, monitoring, and assessment; natural and socioeconomic research and modeling; outreach and education; and management and stewardship efforts.



Spurred by several major events, U.S. and global efforts to slow and prevent further coral reef loss increased in earnest in the 1990s. Throughout this decade, NOAA and U.S. partners supported new international collaborations, while working at home to gain increasing protections for coral reefs in U.S. waters. The formation of the CRCP in 2000 allowed NOAA to improve, increase, and better coordinate its coral reef research, management, and stewardship and education efforts.

While coral reef conservation efforts are moving in the right direction, they cannot be successful without the support of citizens in the U.S. and countries around the world. In 2004, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s reefs had been effectively lost due to a variety of natural and human impacts. If urgent management action is not taken to protect these ecosystems, another 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs may be lost in the next few decades, particularly those near human populations.

Because coral reef decline in many areas is largely a result of human impacts, the solution to this crisis also lies in the hands of individuals and their communities. Even if you don't live near a reef, you can help protect coral reefs in the U.S. and around the world. With your help, NOAA will continue to preserve coral reefs for future generations.


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