The disappearing reefs


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While ravaged rainforests have rightly held world attention, the growing destruction of the world's coral reefs has garnered little note. Yet the reef ecosystem is the mother lode of the ocean's biological diversity, and when it dies, many of the world's watery species will go with it.

The prime killer is cyanide. To satisfy the massive demand for fresh reef fish, divers are using sodium cyanide to increase their catch. They squirt the deadly chemical at fish, or simply dump barrels of it in prime fish reefs. The sought-after large fish are stunned and easily captured, while the cyanide kills smaller fish and other marine life. The poisoned coral -- some of it hundreds of years old -- dies, and many reefs are becoming 'the equivalent of a clear-cut forest,' reports a Nature Conservancy biologist in New Scientist. Cyanide fishing threatens one-third of the world's biologically richest reefs.

Fish diners, mainly in Taiwan, China, the Philippines, and Japan, pay premium prices, as much as $1,000 for a plate of humphead wrasse lips. The divers, mainly poor coastal people, find the lucrative trade hard to resist.

The International Marinelife Alliance is pressing for stronger regulations and is spearheading efforts to teach divers sustainable methods such as net fishing and alternative revenue sources such as fish processing.