Only 1% of Japan's largest coral reef is healthy, study finds


Japan’s largest coral reef has not recovered from bleaching due to rising sea temperatures, with only 1 percent of the reef in a healthy condition, according to a government study.

The overall volume of coral in Sekisei Lagoon near Okinawa had already plunged by 80 percent since the late 1980s, due to rising water temperatures and damage caused by coral-eating starfish.

Now only 1.4 percent of the lagoon, which stretches over 67.89 square kilometers, is in a healthy condition, the Environment Ministry said, after it was hit by mass bleaching in 1998, 2001, 2007 and most recently 2016.

“If coral reefs don’t recover, it means a loss of rich fauna for a variety of creatures and would have grave impact on the ecosystem in the region,” ministry official Chihiro Kondo said Friday.

For the first time since 2008 the ministry analyzed satellite photos and information from some 1,000 monitoring sites for the Sekisei Lagoon and two other reefs around the Ishigaki and Iriomote islets in Okinawa.

The ratio of healthy corals stood at 14.6 percent in 1991 but had dropped to 0.8 percent in the 2008 survey, Kondo said.

Two other neighboring lagoons had similar results with the ratio of healthy areas around 1 percent.

Bleaching occurs when abnormal environmental conditions, such as warmer sea temperatures, cause corals to expel tiny photosynthetic algae, draining them of their color.

Corals can recover if the water temperature drops and the algae are able to recolonize them.

“But the latest study shows that corals haven’t recovered much since 2008, presumably partly because of the 2016 bleach,” Kondo said.

One of the worst mass bleaching episodes on record took place in 1998, when the El Nino phenomenon was exceptionally strong, affecting reefs in 60 tropical countries.

Coral reefs are also under pressure from ocean acidification linked to carbon dioxide emissions, scientists warn.

Corals make up less than 1 percent of Earth’s marine environment, but are home to more than 25 percent of marine life.