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Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip

Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip, an SFU biology PhD student, and his fellow researchers have found that 75 per cent of the Caribbean’s coral reefs have collapsed as a result of climate change.

Caribbean coral reefs collapsing: study

June 11, 2009

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Climate change has caused a startling 75 per cent of the Caribbean region’s coral reefs to collapse, reducing the region’s biodiversity and increasing its susceptibility to coastal erosion and flooding, according to a new study co-authored by three Simon Fraser University researchers.

"Researchers have known for a long time that coral bleaching kills corals," says lead researcher Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip, an SFU doctoral student who collaborated on the project with university biologists Nick Dulvy and Isabelle Côté and two researchers in the U.K.

But, he adds, "We thought bleached corals’ dead skeletons continue to shelter reef inhabitants and shield coastlines from storms and hurricanes. Our team has shown that the dead skeletons are collapsing as fast as the reefs are dying." The team’s conclusions were published online June 11 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London-B.

Using meta-analysis—a statistical technique for amalgamating, reviewing and summarizing previous quantitative studies—the researchers drew on 500 surveys across 200 reefs between 1969 and 2008.

They found that 75 per cent of the reefs are now largely flat, compared with 20 per cent in the 1970s, due to human-induced climate change.

"What is happening here is comparable to having all the trees in the Amazon forest fall over as a result of losing their leaves. There will be nothing left," says Dulvy, a Canada Research Chair in marine biodiversity and conservation.

Dulvy says the disturbing decline, combined with continued fishing in the region, will speed up the decline of reef-dependent marine life and threaten the existence of nearby fishing-dependent coastal communities. These communities will also be more vulnerable to flooding.

The study comes on the heels of another meta-analysis by SFU biologist Michelle Paddack in May, which found that both harvested and non-harvested Caribbean-reef fish have been declining about five per cent annually for the last decade.

"There is little doubt that the two trends—declining complexity and reef fish abundance—are linked," says Côté. "There’s a good chance that what we’re seeing in the Caribbean is happening even more extensively in deep-water coral and sponge reefs in Canada.

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