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60% of Earth’s coral may be at risk

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Nearly 60 percent of the Earth's living coral reefs, some of which are more than 2 million years old, are threatened by human activity from coastal development and overfishing to inland pollution, a pro-environmental research group said this week.

The study by the World Resources Institute was described by its authors as the first systematic global assessment of the health of the Earth's ecologically precious concentrations of coral."Like rain forests, reefs harbor much of the planet's wealth of species and are being rapidly degraded by humans," said Dirk Bryant, one of the authors. "The news is grim."

The study came only weeks after President Clinton highlighted ecologists' concerns about coral reef degradation at a conference on oceans in Monterey, Calif., at which he pledged $6 million to help restore degraded reefs in U.S. coastal waters.

Coral reefs, some of which are still alive after 2.5 million years, consist of thousands of small organisms and an outside cover of a single-cell plant that gives off the coral's distinctive bright colors. They are home to a fourth of all marine fish species, according to scientists. Sensitive to pollution and even to unusually warm water, the coral when it dies gives off a bleached appearance.

The World Resources report said despite recent campaigns - including the declaration of 1997 as the "Year of the Reef" and 1998 the "Year of the Ocean" - there still is no concerted effort to reverse coral reef degradation in many parts of the world.

Furthermore, said the study, "we still lack comprehensive estimates regarding the status of, and the magnitude of, threats to these aquatic ecosystems."

Studies published in 1993 suggested 10 percent of the world's coral reefs were dead and 30 percent were likely to die over the next few decades, but scientists acknowledge these statistics, widely circulated, were only estimates and in some cases guesswork.

The World Resources study included analysis of 14 types of global maps, data collected from 800 sites known to be degraded and information gathered by coral reef scientists to develop a model showing the extent of reef damage and expected future degradation.

The results are "an indicator of the threats to this vital ecosystem," said Lauretta Burke, another of the co-authors. She acknowledged more study is needed to identify reefs that are at greatest risk and how best to reclaim them.

The study found that about 58 percent of the world's reefs are at risk of degradation because of coastal development, destructive fishing and pollution from inland runoff from deforestation and farming.