NOAA 2002-125
Contact: David Miller
NOAA News Releases 2002
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New Report Highlights Key Actions and Addresses Threats

The first-ever national assessment of the condition of U.S. coral reefs was released today by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The report identifies the pressures that pose increasing risks to reefs, particularly in certain “hot spots” located near population centers. The report also assesses the health of reef resources, ranks threats in 13 geographic areas, and details mitigation efforts.

Led by NOAA’s National Ocean Service, the 265-page report, The State of Coral Reef Ecosystems of the United States and Pacific Freely Associated States, was developed by 38 coral reef experts and 79 expert contributors. Prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, the report establishes a baseline that will now be used for biennial reports on the health of U.S. coral reefs. NOAA has also released A National Coral Reef Strategy, a report to Congress outlining specific action to address 13 major goals, including continuing mapping and monitoring, to safeguard reefs. The reports will be highlighted when the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meets on October 2-3, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Co-chaired by the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the Interior, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force was established in 1998 to help lead U.S. efforts to address the coral reef crisis. It includes the heads of 11 federal agencies and governors of seven states, territories and commonwealths.

NOAA scientists have already achieved a scientific milestone in mapping coral reefs. Working with public and private partners in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, they successfully mapped coral ecosystems around those islands using a novel 26-category classification system and mapping process.

“The new classification is a vital management tool that tells us where the reefs are, what lives on them, and what relationships may be to neighboring habitats and human activities,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “We now have a complete snapshot of the U.S. Caribbean region, a clear, consistent baseline for future mapping, and a solid model to implement good management in other regions.”

The mapping process developed in the U.S. Caribbean is currently being applied in Hawaii, and then Guam, American Samoa and other U.S. territories with coral reefs.

Clear action is needed because an estimated 27 percent of the world’s shallow water coral reefs may already be beyond recovery. An estimated 66 percent are now severely degraded. Craig Manson, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, Department of the Interior, called release of the first national study of U.S. coral reefs “an important first report card on the health of U.S. reefs. It’s a valuable tool for raising public awareness about the global decline of these unique treasures,” he said.

The report indicates that, in all areas, some U.S. reefs are in good to excellent health. But it also states that every U.S. reef system is suffering from both human and natural disturbances. U.S. reefs share problems with reefs globally, especially the effects of rapidly growing coastal populations. Over 10.5 million people now live in U.S. coastal areas adjacent to shallow coral reefs. Every year, 45 million people visit these areas.

While natural environmental pressures such as temperature, sea-level changes, diseases and storms have shaped coral reefs for at least thousands of years, human-induced pressures are now also taking their toll. Coastal pollution, coastal development and runoff, and destructive fishing practices are among the top-ranked threats. These are followed by ship groundings, diseases, changing climate, trade in coral and live reef species, alien species, marine debris, harmful tourist activity and tropical storms.

Overall, Florida and the U.S. Caribbean were found to be in the poorest condition, mainly because of nearby dense populations and the effects of hurricanes, disease, overfishing and a proliferation of algae. Live coral cover in the Florida Keys has declined 37 percent over the past five years. Of 31 coral reef fishery stocks in federal waters, 23 are overfished in the U.S. Caribbean. Coral disease is especially high in the Caribbean, where over 90 percent of the once abundant longspine sea urchins died in the early 1980s. Vital in keeping coral from being overgrown and killed by algae, they have since recovered to just 10 percent of their original numbers off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 20 years, white-band disease has killed nearly all the elkhorn and staghorn corals off the coasts of St. Croix, Puerto Rico and southeast Florida.

The report also details coral reef conditions in the Flower Garden Banks of the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico, Nassau, the Hawaiian Archipelago, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana islands and the Pacific Freely Associated States (Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau).

As ancient animals, corals evolved into modern reef-building forms over the last 25 million years. Today these living forms are earth’s largest biological structures. They are essential sources of food, jobs, chemicals, shoreline protection and life-saving pharmaceuticals. Tourism in U.S. coral reef areas generates over $17 billion annually. Commercial fishing generates an additional $246.9 million annually. In South Florida alone, reefs support 44,500 jobs, providing a total annual income of $1.2 billion.

Data and other information derived from NOAA’s coral reef efforts are now available at CoRIS, a new Coral Reef Information System Web site that provides a single point of access for nearly 20,000 aerial photos, navigational charts, photo mosaics, monitoring reports, professional exchanges and much more.

The Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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The new reports and CoRIS Web site are available at

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