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Texas Reader : Coral in Peril

This exhaustive examination of the gulf's coral reefs paints a bleak, if colorful, picture.

By E. Dan Klepper

The recently completed treatise Coral Reefs of the Southern Gulf of Mexico (edited by John W. Tunnell Jr., Ernesto A. Chávez and Kim Withers; Texas A&M Press, 2007) embodies a far greater accomplishment than its academic title suggests. This exhaustive study on one of the most endangered ecosystems in the gulf region compiles marine ecology, oceanography, biodiversity and geology into the most complete, and first, published review of the state of coral reefs throughout the southern Gulf of Mexico.

Coral reefs, of which there are 38 in the southern gulf, are key to a healthy marine environment. "Worldwide, coral reefs are called the 'rainforests of the sea,' owing to their extraordinary diversity and beauty, but the phrase could well be reversed, with forests of the land praised for their similarities to coral reefs," writes renowned undersea explorer Sylvia Earle in her foreword for the book. "Although rarely acknowledged, far greater biological diversity is contained within marine systems than their terrestrial counterparts."

Coral Reefs of the Southern Gulf of Mexico features a broad selection of underwater color photography and a set of maps, figures and tables that help illustrate southern reef science, providing a comprehensive gateway to understanding a complex environment. The book's list of nine authors includes an array of scientists from both the U.S. and Mexico who specialize in marine studies. Their contributions span a diversity of subjects from reef ecology to island biota, but all authors sound a similar degree of alarm.

"The reefs portrayed here have been developing over hundreds of millennia, but it has taken less than a half century for them to precipitously decline owing to the impacts of pollution from near and far, coupled with the consequences of overfishing — the extraction of more of the ocean's wild creatures than can be replenished," explains Earle.

Perhaps more compelling, the text explains in straightforward terms why reef conservation and management should be of primary concern.

"If the ocean is in trouble," Earle concludes, "so are we."

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