Hotspots Study Sounds Alarm for Extinctions in the Ocean

PARIS/NAIROBI, 14 February 2002 - The world's top 10 coral reef hotspots, areas rich in marine species found only in small areas and therefore highly vulnerable to extinction, are identified for the first time in a study published in the February 15 issue of the international journal, Science.

Based on new research that for the first time compares the range (endemism) of certain key species with known threats to coral reefs from human impacts, the paper is the first of its kind to identify global priority areas for coral reef conservation. Furthermore, it contradicts a long-held contention that marine species are unlikely to become extinct as a consequence of human activities because of their vast geographic ranges in the oceans.

"We know that unless we take action right away, marine species will start going extinct, because you lose biodiversity as a consequence of habitat destruction," said Dr. Callum Roberts of the University of York and lead author of the report. "This study can help us create an urgently needed strategy that targets the places where biodiversity is bleeding away most rapidly."

"This is the first paper to set priorities for marine conservation," said co-author Mark Spalding of the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and lead author of the UNEP-WCMC World Atlas of Coral Reefs (see below). "For the first time, we have been able to identify the ten most threatened coral reef areas in the world. Now we need to take the necessary steps to protect them," he said.

The 10 coral reef hotspots, ranked according to the degree of threat, are:

1) Philippines; 2) Gulf of Guinea Islands; 3) Sunda Islands (Indonesia); 4) Southern Mascarene Islands (near Madagascar); 5) Eastern South Africa; 6) Northern Indian Ocean; 7) Southern Japan, Taiwan and southern China; 8) Cape Verde Islands; 9) Western Caribbean; 10) Red Sea and Gulf of Aden

These 10 hotspots contain just 24 percent of the world's coral reefs, or 0.017 percent of the oceans, but claim 34 percent of restricted-range species. The study identified a total of 18 areas with the greatest concentrations of species found nowhere else, and determined the hotspots category based on threats.

"The oceans have long been considered limitless places where we have little impact on species' survival. But the richest of the shallow tropical marine habitats are at risk of disappearing at an incredibly fast rate. This study is further proof that we need to dramatically increase conservation efforts at sea," said Dr. Sylvia Earle, Executive Director for Marine Programs with Conservation International.

Eight of the 10 coral reef hotspots are adjacent to a terrestrial biodiversity hotspot, those regions of the world that harbor the highest concentrations of species on land and are also at the greatest risk. "The phenomenal overlap of the coral reef hotspots and the terrestrial hotspots shows that we're in the right places for lizards and lizardfish alike," said report co-author Tim Werner, Senior Director with CI's Marine Programs. "The reward for pursuing an integrated conservation strategy for land and sea will be high returns on conservation investments in these regions."

Activities destroying habitat in the terrestrial hotspots are also contributing to coral reef destruction. Some 58 percent of the world's reefs are reported as threatened by human activities.

Agriculture, deforestation and development resulting in large quantities of sediment, nutrients and other pollutants going into coastal wasters, as well as intense fishing and climate change are listed as the leading causes of reef ecosystem destruction. A quarter of the world's coral reefs have already been destroyed or severely degraded through global warming, according to the paper. Reef degradation in the hotspots could cost some of the world's poorest people an important source of nutrition, and in many cases their livelihoods. In the Philippines, for example, people derive some 70 percent of their animal protein from seafood.

The study mapped the geographic ranges of a total of 3,235 species, including 1700 species of reef fish, 804 species of coral, 662 species of snail and 69 species of lobster. These are four separate animal groups that all require healthy reef environments in order to survive.

Creation of marine reserves that are off limits to fishing is one of the steps that should be taken immediately, Roberts said. About six percent of the world's land is in parks. But at sea, less than one-half of one percent is in any kind of protected area.

In the seas, conservation is proven to be economically beneficial. Marine reserve protection will pay for itself if designed properly. In marine reserves, fish live longer, grow larger and can replenish surrounding fisheries. Five years after setting up a network of marine reserves around the Caribbean island of in St. Lucia, for instance, fish catches had nearly doubled," Roberts said.

In addition to the correlation with terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, the paper notes that tropical reef ecosystems include "wilderness" areas, which remain far less impacted by people, are rich in species, and relative to degraded areas, still contain abundant populations of reef species such as sharks that quickly disappear from overexploited reefs. These include places such as New Guinea, a terrestrial tropical wilderness area that also has coral reefs in near pristine condition compared to other parts of the world. The study recommends that conservation efforts extend to both the coral reef hotspots and these "wilderness" areas.

The Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) at Conservation International supported the study in order to identify priority areas for conservation. Data from UNEP-WCMC enabled the scientists to calculate the extent of coral reef in each of the hotspots.

The UNEP-WCMC World Atlas of Coral Reefs (published September 2001), the most detailed assessment to date of coral reefs, revealed that these precious marine ecosystems occupy a much smaller area of the planet than previously assumed: 284 300 sq km or an area just half the size of France. After looking at the biology and threats to coral reefs worldwide, the Atlas concluded that these important, valuable and seductively beautiful habitats are rapidly being degraded by human activities and in urgent need of protection. (See press release at

"The UNEP-WCMC World Atlas of Coral Reefs fleshes out the biology and threats facing each of the areas we identify as key conservation concerns," said Callum Roberts.

A senior lecturer with the University of York in England, Callum Roberts was a fellow with CABS when the study was performed. Co-authors include four CABS scientists: Timothy B. Werner; Gerald R. Allen; Cristina G. Mittermeier, and Carly Vynne. The other co-authors are Colin J. McClean, with the University of York; John E.N. Veron, with the Australian Institute of Marine Science; Julie P. Hawkins, with the University of York, Don E. McAllister, now deceased, of Ocean Voice International; Frederick W. Schueler, with Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum; Mark Spalding, with UNEP-WCMC; and Fred Wells, with the Western Australian Museum.

Note to journalists

For copies of the Science paper, contact AAAS News & Information on tel +1-202-326-6440, email:

Photographs and maps from the UNEP-WCMC Coral Reef Atlas are available at:

For more information contact Robert Bisset, UNEP Press Officer, tel +33-1-44377613, mobile +33-6-2272-5842, email:; Callum Roberts, email: or Mark Spalding at UNEP-WCMC, tel: +44 (0)1223 277314, e-mail:, Pamela Moyer, Conservation International, on tel +1-202-912-1294, email:

Press release jointly issued with Conservation International

Note to Editors

UNEP activities on coral reefs

As part of its contribution to the global campaign to conserve corals, UNEP is a partner in ICRAN, the International Coral Reef Action Network. ICRAN is the most important global initiative to respond to the challenges of reversing the decline in coral reefs. The action phase of ICRAN was recently launched with a major grant from the United Nations Foundation (see

UNEP has a Coral Reef Unit (see It is also working actively to promote responsible tourism in coral areas, and other sensitive environments, via its Tour Operators Initiative (see and is one of the United Nations coordinators for the 2002 International Year of Ecotourism. (see

The UNEP-WCMC World Atlas of Coral Reefs. Published by University of California Press in 2001. Information about this, the most detailed assessment to date of the world's coral reefs is available from UNEP-WCMC at tel: +44 (0)1223 277314 Fax: +44 (0)1223 277136, Email:,

Also please note:

The first ever, global report on the plight of the Dugong (or sea cow) was released Tuesday by UNEP at the on-going Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in Cartegena, Columbia. The new study indicates that rising pollution from land, coastal developments, boat traffic and fishermens' nets are among the list of increasing threats which are contributing to a decline in the dugong's fortunes. The Dugong live in a number of the hotspot areas identified by the new Science paper, including: the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the North Indian Ocean, the Philippines and the Sunda Islands. Journalists can download a copy of the Dugong report

UNEP News Release: 2002/10


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