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Coral Reefs More Vulnerable To Coastal Development

First Posted: Dec 08, 2015 04:29 PM EST

Researchers found that coral reefs are becoming more vulnerable due to coastal development than previously predicted, according to a study at the University of FloridaInitially, scientists thought that ocean herbivores such as fish, sea turtles and urchins could consume large amounts of algae produced from nutrients flushed into the ocean by human activity. However, this new study proved otherwise and it is shedding light on the importance of coral reefs' growth in in coastal areas.

"We found that while herbivores can control the effects of nutrient pollution in small-scale experiments, nutrient pollution at larger, realistic scales can overwhelm them," Mike Gil, lead author of the study and marine biologist, said in a news release. "We can't just focus on protecting fish to keep coral reefs healthy. We have to take a more holistic approach."

Fertilizer and sewer runoffs speeds up the nutrient enrichment process which puts coral reefs in danger. In addition, human population growth and development also accelerates this process, where large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous are released into nearby water bodies. This enrichment results in excess growth of algae, which causes harm to corals, kelp and sea grasses.

Gil has observed a decline in coral reef in Akumal, Mexico, where there is an increase of algae. Even though the fish population remained the same, Gil is curious if the herbivore population would be sufficient enough to protect reefs.

The researchers found that as nutrient pollution increased, herbivores were losing their ability to control the resulting algae, which indicated that the reefs are becoming more vulnerable than previously thought. The researchers are hoping that their new findings will pave the way for the tourism and fish industries to create policies and plans that can accommodate and protect coral reefs.

The findings of this study were published in the journal Oecologia.

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