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The struggle to save Earth's largest life form

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Leaf through the latest tomes on the status of coral reefs worldwide and a grim picture emerges. Because of overfishing, soil and nutrient runoff from land, and climate change:

• A fifth of the reefs - among the planet's most productive habitats - have been destroyed and are not recovering.

• Another quarter face the threat of imminent collapse from human activities.

• Another quarter are said to face long-term collapse.

"If we've learned anything in the last 10 years, it's how to kill a coral reef," says coral ecologist Terry Hughes ruefully.

Those dire facts, drawn from the latest "Global Coral Reef Status Report," however, are serving as a springboard for devising strategies to save the world's coral communities and, by extension, the thousands of marine species that rely on them. The best way to do this, many marine ecologists now maintain, is to focus on a reef's ability to bounce back from hardship. Where ecologists once talked about saving species, habitats, and biodiversity in a tropical reef ecosystem, many now speak of preserving "resilience."

Nowhere is this approach to reef conservation being put through its paces more rigorously than along Australia's Great Barrier Reef - dubbed by some the largest living thing on Earth. In fact, the GBR is a chain of 2,900 reefs stretching some 1,200 miles along Australia's east coast. Slowly expanding its reach as sea levels have risen following the last ice age, the network covers just over 135,000 square miles of coastal ocean.

Beyond its immediate biological value, the reef system represents a ringing cash register for the state of Queensland. Tourism and related activities bring in roughly $1.2 billion (Australian; US$950 million) a year to the region. The reef network also serves as a buffer between the mainland and the high seas that accompany tropical cyclones.


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