Caribbean coral species are dying off, indicating dramatic shifts in the ecological balance under the sea, a new scientific study of Caribbean marine life shows.

The study found that 10 percent of the Caribbean’s 62 reef-building corals were under threat, including staghorn and elkhorn corals. These used to be the most prominent species but are now candidates to be listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

A gathering of 23 scientists in Dominica analysed data on Western Tropical Atlantic corals, seagrasses, mangroves and algae, which are fundamental components of marine ecosystems providing food and shelter for numerous other organisms and local communities.

The threats to corals and other marine species include coastal pollution and human development; increased sedimentation in run-off water; thermal stress and heightened severity of hurricanes from climate change; and shifts in species dynamics due to over-fishing, according to the study. Scientists explained that the Caribbean has undergone the longest and most sustained impacts from human development since the colonization of the Americas.

Next to corals, mangroves appear to be the hardest hit. Mangrove cover in the region has declined by 42% over the past 25 years, with two of the eight mangrove species now considered Vulnerable to extinction and two more in Near Threatened status.

“Mangroves protect shorelines, shelter fish, and filter pollution,” said Aaron Ellison of Harvard University. “The Caribbean was blessed with an abundance of these useful plants, but the consensus of this workshop is that mangroves are in trouble everywhere and need to be protected and restored,” he added. Mangrove forests are being cut down to make way for coastal housing, tourism, and aquaculture development.

The scientists noted that some healthy Caribbean coral reefs still exist in well-managed marine protected areas such as Bonaire Marine Park in the Netherlands Antilles. Direct human impacts are reduced in these areas allowing most corals to thrive; however, thermal stress from global warming affects all corals in the Caribbean and must be reversed if these refuges of Caribbean beauty are to survive, they added.

Further Reading: Conservation International

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