Washington, July 11 : A new study has determined that a third of reef-building corals around the world are threatened with extinction.
The study is the first-ever comprehensive global assessment to determine the conservation status of coral reefs.
"The results of this study are very disconcerting," stated Kent Carpenter, lead author of the Science article, GMSA Director, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Programme.
Built over millions of years, coral reefs are home to more than 25 percent of marine species, making them the most biologically diverse of marine ecosystems.
Corals produce reefs in shallow tropical and sub-tropical seas and have been shown to be highly sensitive to changes in their environment.
"When corals die off, so do the other plants and animals that depend on coral reefs for food and shelter, and this can lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems," he added.
Researchers identified the main threats to corals as climate change and localized stresses resulting from destructive fishing, declining water quality from pollution, and the degradation of coastal habitats.
Climate change causes rising water temperatures and more intense solar radiation, which lead to coral bleaching and disease often resulting in mass coral mortality.
Shallow water corals have a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae, which live in their soft tissues and provide the coral with essential nutrients and energy from photosynthesis and are the reason why corals have such beautiful colors.
Coral bleaching is the result of a stress response, such as increased water temperatures, whereby the algae are expelled from the tissues, hence the term "bleaching."
Corals that have been bleached are weaker and more prone to attack from disease.
According to scientists, increased coral disease also is linked to higher sea temperatures and an increase in run-off pollution and sediments from the land.
Researchers predict that ocean acidification will be another serious threat facing coral reefs.
As oceans absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, water acidity increases and pH decreases, severely impacting corals' ability to build their skeletons that form the foundation of reefs.
If rising sea surface temperatures continue to cause increased frequency of bleaching and disease events, many corals may not have enough time to replenish themselves and this could lead to extinctions.
"These results show that as a group, reef-building corals are more at risk of extinction than all terrestrial groups, apart from amphibians, and are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change," said Roger McManus, CI's vice president for marine programs.
"The loss of the corals will have profound implications for millions of people who depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods," he added.