Coral reef found in Amazon drilling area

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Scientists aboard a Greenpeace ship have discovered that a massive coral reef near the mouth of the Amazon extends further than thought, overlapping areas where French company Total plans to drill for oil.


The 1,000km long and 56,000 sq km Amazon coral reef is a biome thought to contain dozens of undiscovered species that environmentalists say would be irreparably damaged if drilling for oil began – a vision at odds with the wish of oil companies hoping to explore the area’s vast estimated reserves.

The reef was discovered in 2016, but Greenpeace’s latest find shows that it extends into the area where Total plans to drill. The Brazilian government has estimated that the Foz de Amazonas, or Amazon Mouth area, could hold 15.6bn barrels of oil.

A group of oil companies led by French company Total that included BP and Brazil’s state oil giant Petrobras acquired rights to five exploration blocks in a 2013 auction.

Greenpeace says that the recent discovery of coral in Total’s FZA-M-86 block, located 120km off the coast of the Amazon state of Amapá, invalidates the company’s last environmental impact assessment and their estimation that corals would be 30% affected in the event of an oil spill.

The research could further complicate plans by oil companies to explore an area that some geologists say could hold up to 14 billion barrels of petroleum, or more than the entire proven reserves in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2013, Total led a group including Britain’s BP Plc and Brazilian state-run oil company Petrobras in buying five exploration blocks in the Foz do Amazonas basin, but the discovery of a massive coral reef just 28 kilometers from the blocks has thrown environmental approval for drilling into doubt.

The Amazon Reef is a unique biome that includes giant sponges and rhodoliths – calcareous algae that form habitat for reef creatures. It is also thought to contain dozens of undiscovered species.

Coral reefs

Coral reefs are large underwater structures composed of the skeletons of coral, which are marine invertebrate animals. The coral species that build coral reefs are known as hermatypic or”hard” corals because they extract calcium carbonate from seawater to create a hard, durable exoskeleton that protects their soft, sac-like bodies.

Each individual coral is referred to as a polyp. New coral polyps live on the calcium carbonate exoskeletons of their ancestors, adding their own exoskeleton to the existing coral structure. As the centuries pass, the coral reef slowly grows, one tiny exoskeleton at a time, until they become massive features of the submarine environment.

There are hundreds of different species of coral, according to the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), a nonprofit environmental group. Coral have a dazzling array of shapes and colors, from round, folded brain corals that resemble a human brain to tall, elegant sea whips and sea fans that look like intricate, vibrantly colored trees or plants. [Photos: Stunning New Coral Species of Polynesia]

Corals belong to the phylum Cnidaria (pronounced ni-DAR-ee-uh), a group that includes jellyfish, anemones, Portuguese man o’ war and other marine animals. Though each individual animal is referred to as a polyp, corals are often described as a colony of thousands of polyps.

What are the main threats to coral reefs?

Coral reefs have survived tens of thousands of years of natural change, but many of them may not be able to survive the havoc wrought by humankind.

Roughly one-quarter of coral reefs worldwide are already considered damaged beyond repair, with another two-thirds under serious threat.

Major threats to coral reefs and their habitats include:

  • Climate change: Corals cannot survive if the water temperature is too high. Global warming has already led to increased levels of coral bleaching, and this is predicted to increase in frequency and severity in the coming decades. Such bleaching events may be the final nail in the coffin for already stressed coral reefs and reef ecosystems.
  • Destructive fishing practices: These include cyanide fishing, blast or dynamite fishing, bottom trawling, and muro-ami (banging on the reef with sticks). Bottom-trawling is one of the greatest threats to cold-water coral reefs.
  • Overfishing: This affects the ecological balance of coral reef communities, warping the food chain and causing effects far beyond the directly overfished population.
  • Careless tourism: Careless boating, diving, snorkeling, and fishing happens around the world, with people touching reefs, stirring up sediment, collecting coral, and dropping anchors on reefs. Some tourist resorts and infrastructure have been built directly on top of reefs, and some resorts empty their sewage or other wastes directly into water surrounding coral reefs.
  • Pollution: Urban and industrial waste, sewage, agrochemicals, and oil pollution are poisoning reefs. These toxins are dumped directly into the ocean or carried by river systems from sources upstream. Some pollutants, such as sewage and runoff from farming, increase the level of nitrogen in seawater, causing an overgrowth of algae, which ‘smothers’ reefs by cutting off their sunlight.
  • Sedimentation: Erosion caused by construction (both along coasts and inland), mining, logging, and farming is leading to increased sediment in rivers. This ends up in the ocean, where it can ‘smother’ corals by depriving them of the light needed to survive. The destruction of mangrove forests, which normally trap large amounts of sediment, is exacerbating the problem.
  • Coral mining: Live coral is removed from reefs for use as bricks, road-fill, or cement for new buildings. Corals are also sold as souvenirs to tourists and to exporters who don’t know or don’t care about the longer term damage done, and harvested for the live rock trade.

Why are coral reefs so important?

A Coastal Protection Reefs occupy less than 0.2% of the seabed. Yet they run along more than 150 000 km of coastline in more than 100 countries and territories.   By their massive formation between the surface and the first few tens of meters deep, coral reefs are a very effective for absorbing elements coming from the ocean.

They absorb waves energy and contribute to environmental protection through the reduction of coastal erosion. They reduce the damage in case of storms, hurricanes, and in some way, the energy of tsunamis. In doing so, they protect both ecosystems located between the reefs and coasts, such as seagrass and lagoon for example, and human settlements located by the sea.

Their impact is so effective that the man mimics immersing concrete structures along some of our fragile coasts. Without this protective role, some countries in atolls, such as the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are literally built on coral reefs and would not exist and without the protective fringe.

Mangroves are also one of the most sought after by some species of fish to come and lay their breeding juvenile ecosystems.   The surface of coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific may also be the place of habitat of human cultures that have lived there for centuries.

These people can literally live on the immersed surface reefs, cultivate these soils, build their dwell from coral blocks, and even build artificial islands where families can settle.

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