Press releases

Friday 04 Jun 2004

Cold-water corals highlighted as new global conservation challenge on world environment day 2004

Cold-water corals, mysterious and generally deeper living than their better known warm-water cousins in the tropics, are far more widespread and numerous than had previously been thought – and under serious threat.

Barcelona/Nairobi - 4 June 2004 – Cold-water corals, mysterious and generally deeper living than their better known warm-water cousins in the tropics, are far more widespread and numerous than had previously been thought – and under serious threat.

Researchers, using the latest submersible technologies, are now discovering cold-water coral reefs in many of the world’s seas and oceans including the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

Some, as the various individual reefs on the continental shelfs of the East Atlantic stretching from Norway as far south as West Africa, are when combined far bigger than more famous tropical ones such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Living in waters of 4º – 13º C, they are usually found in depths between 200 and 1,000 metres. However, they can occur as shallow as 40 metres and as deep as 6,300 metres.

The new findings show that cold-water corals thrive in waters off the coasts of more than 40 countries including Spain, Surinam and the Seychelles (see notes to editors).

Until recently, it was popularly thought that cold-water corals were largely confined to waters in the northern hemisphere off places like Canada, Scandinavia and the British Isles.

New surveys, however, have detected cold-water coral reefs as far afield as the Galapagos Islands and Brazil and Indonesia and Angola.

The new findings, released to mark World Environment Day (WED), which is being hosted by City of Barcelona, the Catalan Regional Government and the Government of Spain, with the theme ‘Wanted! Seas and Oceans: Dead or Alive?’, are likely to strengthen calls for greater conservation of these curious habitats globally.

The full report, "Cold-Water Coral Reefs: Out of Sight- No Longer Out of Mind", will be published at an International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) meeting taking place in Okinawa, Japan, between 3 and 4 July following the 10th International Coral Reef Symposium which opens on 28 June.

Cold-water corals grow slowly – only a tenth of the growth rate of warm-water tropical corals - and build beautiful but fragile 3-dimensional lace work structures, which are particularly vulnerable to impacts such as damage from heavy deep-sea fishing gear. Some reefs in the East Atlantic have already been destroyed, and most others show scars from trawling.

Some countries, including Norway, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States, have over recent years placed some of their cold-water corals under tighter protection, including designating them as Special Area of Conservation or Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.

Many of the fish species found living in and around cold-water corals are also slow growing and have lower reproductive rates than shallower living species such as herring and cod.

These deep-water fishes, which include orange roughey, blue ling, roundnose grenadier, black scabbardfish and some deep water sharks, are increasingly being targeted as trawlers switch from traditional, depleted, fishing grounds to deeper ones.

Other threats include impacts from oil and gas exploration and production, the laying of cables and telecommunications links and waste disposal.

Experts hope the discovery that cold-water corals are more widespread will spur other nations to consider precautionary measures to protect them by, for example, designating cold-water coral reefs within marine protected areas (MPAs).

The report, Cold-Water Coral Reefs: Out of Sight-No Longer Out of Mind, is believed to be the most comprehensive ever on the subject. Initiated and co-ordinated by the Coral Reef Unit of the United Nations Environment Programme at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), the report has been compiled by an international network of scientists led by Professor Andre Freiwald of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany.

It has been supported by the Governments of Ireland, Norway and the United Kingdom and WWF and UNEP.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said, “To date our main thrust in respect to corals has been to conserve and better manage those found in the warm, tropical waters. The discovery that cold-water corals are more numerous and more widespread than had previously been thought, highlights how the natural world remains full of surprises and how our focus may need to be broadened.”

“We are only beginning to understand where these life forms are and what their role is in, for example, replenishing deep sea fish stocks and nurturing other marine living organisms. Cold-water corals may also harbour important compounds and substances that could be the source of new drugs or novel industrial products,” he said.

Mr Toepfer added: “ All these benefits could be lost if we mismanage this newly emerging resource. Clearly, conserving tropical corals must remain our main objective, given their importance to millions of poorer people in the developing world. Threats to warm-water corals are also more complex ranging from climate change to run off from the land. However, arguably the biggest threat to both cold and warm-water corals is coming from unsustainable fishing. So it is incumbent upon us to not only better manage deep sea fisheries, but all fisheries so that there is less pressure on the deep and shallow parts of the seas”.

Professor Friewald, who has just returned from a scientific cruise to search for more cold-water reefs, said: “ We are finding not only new species of corals and cold-water corals in new locations but associated organisms, like snails and clams, that were believed by paleontologists to have become extinct 2 million years ago. That was a real surprise, and we expect many of these surprises in the future as we undertake more scientific missions.”

Mr Toepfer also announced a new initiative to link coral conservation and dependent communities in developing countries, entitled Reefs for People. "UNEP are to propose the creation of executive partnerships in each of the regions hosting major warm-water tropical reef systems. The partnerships - a direct outcome of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)- will link the coral reef range states' authorities, NGOs with active scientific and conservation programmes in the area, the private sector including tourist and fisheries industries, and international bodies including UNEP, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) and ICRI." A further announcement is expected in July.

Launch of the UNEP International Photographic Competition

The cold-water corals report is one of the highlights of World Environment Day (WED) 2004.

Another is the launch is the ‘Focus on Your World’ International Photographic Competition, sponsored by Canon, with the theme “Celebrating Diversity”. Two major launches, one in Tokyo, Japan, the other in Barcelona, Spain, are taking place. Eighteen parallel launches are happening in cities across the globe.

The prize winners, whose entries will be judged by a distinguished panel including Sebastiao Salgado, Raghu Rai and Susan Meiselas, will be announced at Expo 2005 taking place in Japan next year.

A separate press release can be found at www.unep.org and full details of the competition, which runs until 24 October 2004, can be found at www.unep-photo.com

World Environment Day: From Athens to San Francisco

Individuals, organizations, local councils and governments across the globe are taking part in the annual World Environment Day celebrations which take place on or around 5 June.

Tomorrow, the Athens Environmental Foundation (AEF), in partnership with the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee (ATHOC), Jean-Michel Cousteau and UNEP, is undertaking a special event in Piraeus, Greece, on the occasion of World Environment Day.

Activities will include a beach clean-up at several sites around Athens, including Piraeus - the Port of Athens, as well as an underwater clean up with hundreds of divers in several spots in Greece, including Piraeus.

Five vessels will be present, three will remove large debris from the sea bed, including cars and refrigerators. In addition, municipal trucks will haul the debris for recycling and/or disposal. The other two vessels will do a demonstration of oil spill containment.

Meanwhile, the City of San Francisco will announce that it will be the host city for World Environment Day 2005. The celebrations will coincide with the 60th anniversary of the birth of the United Nations in the Californian city.


Notes to Editors


Cold-Water Corals – What are They and Where are They?

Cold-water corals are, unlike their better-known warm-water cousins in the tropics, generally found at deeper, cooler depths along the edges of continental shelves, in fjords and around offshore submarine banks, vents and seamounts.

Living in waters of 4º – 13º C, they are usually found in depths between 200 and 1,000 metres. However, they can occur as shallow as 40 metres and as deep as 6,300 metres.

Cold-water corals are part of a group of organisms know as Cnidaria, which means stinging nettles and include anemones and sea pens. They are closely related to the species forming reefs in warm, tropical waters.

Living in the dark, cold-water corals feed on plankton and other organic matter. They do not possess symbiotic algae as their counterparts living in the sun-lid shallow waters.

Radio carbon dating indicates that many cold-water coral reefs are up to 8,000 years old. Geological records of such reefs go back millions of years.

Crustaceans, fish, sea urchins and brittle stars form part of a rich and diverse community which cold-water coral reefs support.

The development of sophisticated underwater camera technology and deep-sea vehicles has begun to shed new light on the location of cold-water corals.

Compared to more than 700 species of warm-water corals, there are only six primary cold-water corals which build reefs.

White corals, Lophelia, are being found throughout the Atlantic, including off Galicia, Spain, in the Bay of Biscay, the Caribbean Sea and parts of the Mediterranean Sea, including the Alboran, Ligurian and Ionian seas and the Straits of Gibraltar.

A dense belt of white coral exists from the south western Barents Sea along the eastern Atlantic down to West Africa off countries as far as Mauritania.

Another belt is being discovered along the western Atlantic from Nova Scotia to the Florida Strait and into the Gulf of Mexico.

The most shallow-living examples of white corals are at around 40 metres in the Trondheimsfjord, Norway. The deepest, at over 3,300 metres, so far found are located in the New England Seamount Chain, north Atlantic.

They have also been detected at the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Ridge off New Zealand.

The largest white coral reef, discovered only in 2002 southwest of the Lofoten Islands, northern Norway, covers approximately 100 square kilometers (roughly the size of Manhattan).

Another cold-water coral, Madrepora, is being found in the north-east and western Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

It has been detected as far north as the Andfjord, northern Norway, and as far south as the sub-Antarctic Drake Passage. Some of the shallowest examples come from between 60 and 120 metres off Brazil and, at nearly 1,700 metres, off the Cape Verde Islands.

Oculina is known from the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic from Florida up to North Carolina on the eastern seaboard of the United States. The Oculina Habitat of Particular Concern, established in 1984 off the coast of Florida, was one of the first cold-water coral banks to be protected from bottom trawling and anchoring.

Enallopsammia ranges from the Antilles in the Caribbean to waters off Massachusetts. New colonies have been pin pointed from Miami, Florida, up to South Carolina.

Goniocorella and Solenosmilia are poorly studied cold-water coral groups. The former can be found off countries like New Zealand, southern African and in Indonesian waters. Solenosmilia occurs on the summits of South Tasmanian seamounts, with large numbers detected in the Heezen Fracture Zone in the South Pacific. Colonies have also been found in the Indian Ocean along the slopes of St Paul and Amsterdam and in the Atlantic on the Little Bahama Bank.

Soft cold-water corals, like Octocorallia, are often closely associated with cold-water coral reefs. Researchers have detected colonies, many of which sport feathery tentacles and form ‘gardens or forests’, off Nova Scotia; Canada, the Aleutian Islands; the United States, Japan and New Zealand.

Precious corals, so-called because of their rising popularity in the jewelry trade, are now known from slopes and seamounts off the Hawaiian Islands. New colonies have been found off Brazil.

Cold-water lace corals have been discovered in waters off the Galapagos Islands, in the north Pacific and the west Atlantic, with well-known systems located in the Porcupine Seabight, Rockall Trough and the Denmark Strait.


Full List of Countries whose off shore water have been found to hold cold-water coral reefs

Angola; Australia; Brazil; Canada; Cape Verde; Chile; China; Columbia; Cuba; Denmark (Greenland, Faroes); Dominican Republic; Ecuador; France; Ghana; Guyana; Haiti; Honduras; Indonesia; Ireland; Iceland; Italy; Jamaica; Japan; Madagascar; Mauritania; Mexico; Morocco; New Zealand; Nicaragua; Norway; Portugal; Russia; Seychelles; South Africa; Spain; Surinam; Sweden; United Kingdom; United States of America; Venezuela and Western Sahara.


Cold-Water Coral Quotes

The planet's life-support systems are the source of stability for all peoples, all nations. Cold-water coral reefs are emerging as a new piece in this vital web of life which now requires our urgent attention.
Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director, UNEP

Cold-water coral reefs form a remarkable and truly valuable ecosystem off our coasts which our nations must work together to protect.
Minister Martin Cullen, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Ireland

International cooperation and action is essential to conserve cold-water coral reefs, including those in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
Elliot Morley, Minister for Environment and Agri-Environment, Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK

These reefs are biological treasures, a natural heritage that we should protect for future generations.
Børge Brende, Minister of the Environment, Norway

WWF calls upon leaders of governments and industry to take urgent action to conserve the spectacular and unique ecosystems of cold-water coral reefs.
Dr Claude Martin, Director General, WWF-International

Downloadable Photographs of Cold-Water Corals, graphics and flyers on the cold-water coral research in English, French and Sapnish, can be accessed at www.unep.org

A video news release is available for broadcasters at http://homepage.mac.com/mabelle/

UNEP News Release 2004

Friday 04 Jun 2004
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