Starfish outbreak threatens corals

January 14, 2008
Starfish outbreak threatens corals
Outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish threaten the heart of the Coral Triangle in Indonesia. Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

Outbreaks of the notorious crown of thorns starfish now threaten the “coral triangle,” the richest center of coral reef biodiversity on Earth, according to recent surveys by the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society and ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The starfish – a predator that feeds on corals by spreading its stomach over them and using digestive enzymes to liquefy tissue – were discovered in large numbers by the researchers in reefs in Halmahera, Indonesia, at the heart of the Coral Triangle, which lies between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. It is considered the genetic fountainhead for coral diversity found on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo and other reefs in the region.

Scientists fear the outbreak is caused by poor water quality and could be an early warning of widespread reef decline.

Recent surveys of Halmahera by the Wildlife Conservation Society and ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies confirmed that while Halmahera’s reefs are still 30-50 percent richer than nearby reefs, some areas were almost completely destroyed.

“The main cause of damage to the corals was the Crown of Thorns Starfish,” Dr. Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University. “We witnessed a number of active outbreaks of this coral predator. There was little to suggest that the reefs have been much affected by climate change as yet: the threats appear far more localized.”

The team also saw first-hand evidence of recent blast-fishing, an extremely destructive fishing practice that uses explosives. According to locals this accompanied a break down of law and order following communal violence in 2000-2003. During the same time many reef lagoons were mined of their corals for use in construction, an activity encouraged by the Indonesian military.

“This is clearly a complex human environment and effective management of the marine resources must address the needs of communities. It will also be vitally important to understand the causes of conflict among communities and address them,” says Dr Stuart Campbell, Program Leader for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s’ Marine Program in Indonesia.

The researchers pointed out that there were still healthy populations of certain species – and still time to reverse the damage.

“The good news is that the reef fish assemblages are still in very good shape” said Tasrif Kartawijaya from WCS-IP. “We saw Napoleon wrasse and bumphead parrot fish at almost every site. So these reefs have the capacity to recover if we can address the current threats.”

The Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) announced by six regional governments at the Bali Climate Change Conference recently offers hope for the reefs in the region, the researchers say. However, there are few details of how it will work and no mention of the fundamental role of research in the conservation program.

“We are disappointed research is yet to be fully considered in the CTI. The success of large marine parks, like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, is largely due to the primary role of science plays in understanding what’s going on, so managers can make good decisions,” said Dr Baird.

“It isn’t enough just to document the diversity of the region. Large scale research is required to understand the Coral Triangle ecosystems and work out how best to respond to threats such as poor water quality and overexploitation,” Dr Campbell added.

Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

Explore further: How much coral reef does the world have? A global perspective needed

Related Stories

The truth about sharks

July 28, 2015

Danger: shark attack (or more properly, say scientists, shark bite). With sharks swimming ever closer to shore this summer—or seeming to—and crossing paths with surfers and bathers, what's going on?

New study finds Pacific reef growth can match rising sea

July 22, 2015

The coral reefs that have protected Pacific Islanders from storm waves for thousands of years could grow rapidly enough to keep up with escalating sea levels if ocean temperatures do not rise too quickly, according to a new ...

Recommended for you

How bees naturally vaccinate their babies

July 31, 2015

When it comes to vaccinating their babies, bees don't have a choice—they naturally immunize their offspring against specific diseases found in their environments. And now for the first time, scientists have discovered how ...

Image: Hubble sees a dying star's final moments

July 31, 2015

A dying star's final moments are captured in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The death throes of this star may only last mere moments on a cosmological timescale, but this star's demise is still quite ...

Earth flyby of 'space peanut' captured in new video

July 31, 2015

NASA scientists have used two giant, Earth-based radio telescopes to bounce radar signals off a passing asteroid and produce images of the peanut-shaped body as it approached close to Earth this past weekend.

Exoplanets 20/20: Looking back to the future

July 31, 2015

Geoff Marcy remembers the hair standing up on the back of his neck. Paul Butler remembers being dead tired. The two men had just made history: the first confirmation of a planet orbiting another star.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.