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Study reveals Agriculture and Fishing Cause Coral Reef Decline

By Christina Wu

Molluscs collected from Caribbean Panama (Photo by Katie Cramer)

Molluscs collected from Caribbean Panama (Photo by Katie Cramer)

Since researchers began surveys in the 1980s, coral reefs in the Caribbean have undergone widespread change following bleaching and disease epidemics that have reduced the abundance of reef-building corals by 50 percent.

A new study by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Washington and Lee University concludes that coral declines along the Caribbean coast of Panama began much earlier, in the early- to mid-20th century, and were related to the first wave of industrial agriculture.

The study, “Molluscan subfossil assemblages reveal the long-term deterioration of coral reef environments in Caribbean Panama,” appeared in the June issue of Marine Pollution Bulletin. It is the first study to offer a comprehensive description of the composition of historical and modern Caribbean coral reef molluscan communities.

Katie Cramer, a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps Oceanography and a fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute collected more than 35,000 shells of clams and other molluscs from large pits that she excavated underwater at multiple reef sites in the Bocas del Toro region of Caribbean Panama. Pits were dug from lagoons closer to shore and more influenced by runoff as well as offshore sites less influenced by runoff. To pinpoint the timing of changes, she used radiocarbon dating to estimate the approximate age of the shells.


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