Across the world coral reefs are dying because of over-fishing. It is the fish which protect the reefs from excessive algae, the main culprit in coral death. For over a millennium, inhabitants of small islands who depended on seafood for survival practiced conservation or starved. In the 20th century, however, improvements in fishing gear and increased seafood demand have led to a breakdown of the once sustainable system. A fifth of the reefs are now completely dead and most of the rest now support a fraction of the marine life they once did.
In the Caribbean, the predators were eliminated first, then the herbivores, until only the sea urchins were keeping the algae density down. When an epidemic wiped out most of the Caribbean’s urchins in 1983, the corals died, too. Now the region’s coral cover is estimated at only 13 percent, from 50 percent 30 years go, according to Alan Friedlander, a Hawaii-based marine ecologist.
Today, across the Pacific, people who depend on seafood for survival are beginning to buck the trend—placing limits on how much one can fish and setting aside no-take areas where the fish populations can reproduce in peace.
The trend began in Palau a few years ago as the Micronesian Challenge, a conservation initiative to ban or severely restrict fishing in 30 percent of coastal waters by 2020. Palau’s dependence on diving tourism has been a powerful motivator. The challenge was proposed by Palau president Tommy Remengesau, Jr., who was named a Time Magazine Hero of the Environment last year and is receiving major financing from the Nature Conservancy. The campaign—urging the nations of Palau and nearby islands to adopt this conservation initiative—has already spawned imitators in Asia and the Caribbean.