World Resources Institute report warns of growing destruction of world's coastal areas

A new report released today by the World Resources Institute (WRI) warns that if the planet's coastal zone continues to be extensively modified or destroyed, its capacity to provide fish, protect homes and businesses, reduce pollution and erosion, and sustain biological diversity will be gravely endangered.

WASHINGTON, April 17, 2001 — A new report released today by the World Resources Institute (WRI) warns that if the planet's coastal zone continues to be extensively modified or destroyed, its capacity to provide fish, protect homes and businesses, reduce pollution and erosion, and sustain biological diversity will be gravely endangered.

"Unless things change very quickly, the world's coastal areas face a grim future. Many important coastal habitats like lagoons, wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs are disappearing," said Jonathan Lash, WRI president, during the release of the report, Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE): Coastal Ecosystems. This report, along with similar studies on agricultural lands, forests, freshwater, and grasslands, comprise the first comprehensive analysis of the world's ecosystems.

Nearly 30 percent of the land area in the world's coastal ecosystems has already been extensively altered or destroyed by growing demands for housing, industry and recreation. An estimated four out of every ten people live within 100 kilometers of a coast. "Coastal populations are exploding, and as they increase, pressures on coastal ecosystems will follow," said Lash.

Nearly two-thirds of all the fish harvested in the world depend on coastal wetlands, mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. About 95 percent of the world's marine fish harvest come from coastal waters. More low-value fish are being caught today as stocks of valuable fish like cod, hake, and tuna are declining. Overall, 75 percent of fish stocks are depleted or being fished at their biological limit.

The report says that beach erosion is also a growing problem and affects tourism revenue, especially in island nations. In the Caribbean, as much as 70 percent of beaches studied over a ten-year period were eroded. Yet, the long-term success of tourism in the region is dependent on excellent beaches, a pristine marine environment, and warm weather.

Studies by the world's climate scientists indicate that an increase in ocean temperatures could result in rising sea levels by as much as 95 centimeters at the end of this century. "The resulting storm surges could intensify erosion, habitat loss, increased salinity of freshwater aquifers, and extreme coastal flooding," said Yumiko Kura, one of the lead authors of the report.

The protection of shorelines, especially in small countries and countries with limited fertile land, has become particularly important. In Japan, the government estimates that 46 percent of its shorelines need protection and has spent more than $40 billion on this effort.

The report also warns that the outright destruction of coral reefs by destructive fishing practices and mining is a serious problem. Coral bleaching — which results from rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change — is also increasing and further threatens this valuable resource.

The Coastal Ecosystems report also reveals:

— In the last 50 years, as much as 85 percent of the mangroves have been lost in Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, Panama and Mexico. Globally, about 50 percent of mangrove forests have been lost.

— In recent decades, the increase in pollution from inland sources and the loss of coastal habitats that filter pollution have led to the expansion of dead or hypoxic zones, such as those in the Gulf of Mexico.

— The incidence of harmful algal blooms along the United States coastlines increased from 200 in the 1970s to 700 in the 1990s. Since 1991, these algal blooms have caused nearly $300 million in terms of fish kills, public health problems, and lost revenue from tourism.

— More invasive or alien species are being found in coastal areas, often disrupting the food chain and eliminating native species. Scientists estimate that on any given day, as many as 3,000 different species are carried in the ballasts of the world's ocean fleet. Scientists have identified 480 invasive species in the Mediterranean, 89 in the Baltic Sea, and 124 in Australian waters.

"These indicators show that the world's coastal ecosystems are going down the drain fast. The challenge before us is to find ways to meet the needs of human development while protecting the ecosystems that are the foundation of all life," said WRI president Lash.

The World Resources Institute (http://www.wri.org/wri) is an environmental think tank that goes beyond research to create practical ways to protect the Earth and improve people's lives.

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