Coral Reef Unit

Announcing the release of the


New Atlas maps the world's fast disappearing coral reefs

UNEP-WCMC World Atlas of Coral Reefs
The most detailed assessment ever of the status 
and distribution of the world's coral reefs

LONDON, 11 September 2001

Scientists who have compiled the most detailed assessment to date of coral reefs have shown that these precious marine ecosystems occupy a much smaller area of the planet than previously assumed. Although distributed in 101 countries and territories, where they are vital for fisheries, coastal protection, tourism and wildlife, they occupy less than one tenth of one percent of the oceans. 

The findings give new urgency to protect and conserve these important, valuable and seductively beautiful habitats which are under increasing threat from activities such as dynamite fishing, pollution, and climate change. For the first time ever we have a comprehensive assessment of where coral reefs are and what state they are in around the world. 

The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) provides a new global estimate for coral reefs world-wide: 284 300 sq km, an area just half the size of France. For the first time, it also provides reef area estimates for individual countries (see below) and includes detailed maps and statistics for all the world's coral reef nations. 

"Our new Atlas clearly shows that coral reefs are under assault," says Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director. "They are rapidly being degraded by human activities. They are over-fished, bombed and poisoned. They are smothered by sediment, and choked by algae growing on nutrient rich sewage and fertilizer run-off. They are damaged by irresponsible tourism and are being severely stressed by the warming of the world's oceans. Each of these pressures is bad enough in itself, but together, the cocktail is proving lethal." 


The Atlas shows that Indonesia, followed by Australia and the Philippines are the largest reef nations, while France comes in fourth, with 14,280 sq km of reefs located in its overseas territories. With more coral than the USA, the UK is the 12th largest reef nation and has over 5,500 sq km of coral reefs (2% of the world total), all located in its overseas territories. 

These area estimates are based on the most detailed map of coral reefs ever produced. Previous estimates were based on very simple maps or models, and incorporated deeper reef areas, which although still important are less diverse and less productive. 

"Many coral reefs are under the ownership of the world's wealthiest nations. Between them, Australia, France, the UK and the USA account for over one quarter of the world's coral reefs - a critical resource in powerful hands," says Mark Spalding, lead author for the Atlas. 

"Previous estimates of coral reef area, which didn't have the benefit of our detailed maps, have been double or in some cases ten times over what we have now found to be the case," says Spalding. "Furthermore, we also found that coral reefs are degrading fast in almost every country of the world. The Atlas provides a critical baseline and a focus for action to reverse these trends." 

Human Benefits

Coral reefs are an important source of food for hundreds of millions of people, many of whom have no other source of animal protein. They also provide income and employment through tourism, and marine recreation, and export fisheries, and for many coastal villages, and some entire nations are the only source of this income and employment. Furthermore, they offer countless other benefits to humans, including supplying compounds for medicines. AZT, a treatment for people with HIV infections is based on chemicals extracted from a Caribbean reef sponge and more than half of all new cancer drug research focuses on marine organisms. 

Often referred to as the "rainforests of the oceans," coral reefs host an extraordinary variety of marine plants and animals (perhaps up to 2 million) including one quarter of all marine fish species. It has been estimated that so far only about 10% of these species have been described by scientists. The Atlas contains the latest information on coral biodiversity. The most diverse region of the world for coral reefs is centered on the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, with between 500 and 600 species of coral in each of these countries. 

Unfortunately, these are also some of the most threatened coral reefs in the world. In Indonesia, 82% are "at risk", threatened by such human activities as the illegal practice of blast fishing. This is the most destructive fishing method on reefs. Explosives are typically thrown towards the reef and explode underwater. The shock wave from the blast kills the majority of fish species on the reef and causes severe damage to its structure. 

Threat and Conservation

This new Atlas from UNEP-WCMC builds on earlier scientific work that found some 58 per cent of the world's coral reefs were threatened by human activities. It includes new information on the impacts of global warming and coral bleaching, including the El Niño event in 1998 that caused the loss of 90 per cent of the corals in some parts of the Indian Ocean, representing 5% of the world's reef area. Much of this damage passed almost unnoticed by the world's policy-makers. Marine scientists point out that had such levels of damage occur in terrestrial environments they would have caused a major public outcry. The Atlas will go a long way towards attracting the weight of opinion needed to protect reefs as a resource for the future. 

It also provides new data on the spread of coral diseases that affect 106 types of coral in 54 countries. It shows that entire coral reefs have been decimated by disease in the Caribbean. 

For the first time, the Atlas also maps the 660 marine protected areas worldwide that incorporate coral reefs. It notes that unfortunately, many of the protected areas exist on paper only, that they are poorly managed and have little or no support or enforcement. It says they often only focus on controlling the direct impacts of humans on coral reefs ignoring the more remote sources of threats to reefs, notably pollution and sedimentation from the adjacent land. 

"Often remote from reefs, deforestation, urban development and intensive agriculture are now producing vast quantities of sediments and pollutants which are pouring into the sea and rapidly degrading coral reefs in close proximity to many shores," says Toepfer. "UNEP, as secretariat to the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Sources is trying to co-ordinate an integrated response to this problem. This and related topics will be high on the agenda of the upcoming GPA ministerial review in Montreal later this year." (For more information see

Economic Potential

The Atlas looks at the economic arguments for better reef management and the potential income from 15 million scuba divers worldwide. It describes a new database listing 2500 dive centres in 91 countries. It says that diving, well planned, can add value to the reefs for local people and promote conservation. Tourism can become a force for good, giving an added value to reefs in the eyes of the local communities, and often providing a direct income, through park fees, for the management of marine protected areas.

According to Dr J.E.N. Veron, Chief Scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and a contributor to the Atlas, reefs are among the most valuable assets of developing countries and if managed well they can be a permanent source of foreign income. "Australia's foreign earnings from tourist industries in the Great Barrier Reef alone is greater than income from all of Australian fishing industries combined," says Veron. 

Signs of hope

"One of the saddest facts about the demise of reefs is that it is utterly nonsensical," says Spalding. "Protecting and managing reefs is not just for the good of the fishes, in every case it also leads to economic and social benefits for local communities." 

"We now have dozens of examples from around the world of small-scale, often community led, systems for managing reefs. These have led to massive booms in productivity and some very happy local fishermen. They stand out as clear sparks of hope which we must use to teach others the message," Spalding adds. 

The most important global initiative to respond to the challenges documented in the Atlas is the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN), in which UNEP and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre have joined with other partners to reverse the decline in coral reefs. After two years of preparation, the action phase of ICRAN was recently launched with a major grant from the United Nations Foundation (see 

"Through ICRAN, many separate activities are being brought together in a coherent way to make a real difference on the ground, where peoples' needs count," says Toepfer. "The ICRAN Partners are now working to raise the significant financial resources needed to put coral reef management in all these regions on a more sustainable basis. We hope that additional support will allow us to extend ICRAN to all the coral reef areas of the world. The Atlas we are launching here today is an important supporting tool for such practical action." 

UNEP has established a Coral Reef Unit to take the lead in the UN system on this issue and is hosting the ICRAN Co-ordinating Unit (see It is also working actively to promote responsible tourism in coral areas, and other sensitive environments, via its Tour Operators Initiative (see and is one of the United Nations coordinators for the 2002 International Year of Ecotourism. 

"The growth of mass-tourism, combined with the boom in popularity of scuba diving, has brought the plight of coral reefs to public attention across the planet," says Toepfer. "Let us all now commit ourselves to the strenuous efforts needed to respond to the crisis of declining coral reefs documented in this Atlas, and to ensure that this unique ecosystem continues to feed, protect and dazzle us and our descendants for generations to come. 

The 428-page World Atlas of Coral Reefs contains 84 full-page newly researched and drawn colour maps, together with more than 200 colour photos illustrating reefs, reef animals, and images taken from space by NASA space shuttle astronauts. 

Available from University of California Press, Tel +1 510 642-4243,  website:

Publication of the World Atlas of Coral Reefs is supported by international institutions including: UNEP; the Dulverton Trust; the Marine Aquarium Council; The International Coral Reef Initiative; ICLARM - the World Fish Center; the Professional Association of Diving Instructors and the Aventis Foundation. 

Coral Reef Area Statistics

These are the coral reef area statistics, as given in the World Atlas of Coral Reefs.

Reef areas have been rounded to the nearest 10 sq km, while for those countries with small areas of coral reefs, the terms <100, <50 and <10 sq km have been used. 

There are 80 countries and geographical locations with coral reefs. Please note: a number of these countries include distinct territories with at least partial autonomy. 
Rank Country and geographical locations Reef Area Percentage of world total 
1 Indonesia, Republic of  51,020 17.95%
2 Australia  48,960 17.22%
3 Philippines, Republic of the 25,060 8.81%
4 France Including: Clipperton, Mayotte, Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna Islands 14,280 5.02%
5 Papua New Guinea 13,840 4.87%
6 Fiji, Republic of  10,020 3.52%
7 Maldives, Republic of 8,920 3.14%
8 Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of  6,660 2.34%
9 Marshall Islands, Republic of the 6,110 2.15%
10 India, Republic of 5,790 2.04%
11 Solomon Islands 5,750 2.02%
12 United Kingdom Including: British Indian Ocean Territory, Anguilla, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Pitcairn, Turks and Caicos Islands, British Virgin Islands 5,510 1.94%
13 Micronesia, Federated States of 4,340 1.53%
14 Vanuatu, Republic of  4,110 1.45%
15 Egypt, Arab Republic of  3,800 1.34%
16 United States of America Including: Florida and Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, United States Minor Outlying Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam 3,770 1.33%
17 Malaysia  3,600 1.27%
18 Tanzania, United Republic of  3,580 1.26%
19 Eritrea 3,260 1.15%
20 Bahamas, Commonwealth of the 3,150 1.11%
21 Cuba, Republic of 3,020 1.06%
22 Kiribati  2,940 1.03%
23 Japan  2,900 1.02%
24 Sudan, Republic of the 2,720 0.96%
25 Madagascar, Republic of 2,230 0.78%
26 Thailand, Kingdom of  2,130 0.75%
27 Myanmar, Union of  1,870 0.66%
28 Mozambique, Republic of  1,860 0.65%
29 Mexico  1,780 0.63%
30 Seychelles, Republic of  1,690 0.59%
31 China 1,510 0.53%
32 Tonga, Kingdom of 1,500 0.53%
33 Belize  1,330 0.47%
34 New Zealand Including: Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau 1,310 0.46%
35 Viet Nam, Socialist Republic of 1,270 0.45%
36 Jamaica 1,240 0.44%
37 Brazil, Federative Republic of 1,200 0.42%
38 United Arab Emirates  1,190 0.42%
39 Palau, Republic of 1,150 0.40%
40 Spratly Islands  1,150 0.40%
41 Costa Rica, Republic of 970 0.34%
42 Colombia 940 0.33%
43 Taiwan, Province of China 940 0.33%
44 Mauritius, Republic of 870 0.31%
45 Honduras, Republic of  810 0.28%
46 Panama, Republic of  720 0.25%
47 Nicaragua, Republic of  710 0.25%
48 Somali Democratic Republic  710 0.25%
49 Tuvalu 710 0.25%
50 Iran, Islamic Republic of  700 0.25%
51 Qatar, State of  700 0.25%
52 Yemen, Republic of 700 0.25%
53 Sri Lanka, Democratic Socialist Republic of  680 0.24%
54 Kenya, Republic of  630 0.22%
55 Dominican Republic  610 0.21%
56 Bahrain, State of 570 0.20%
57 Oman, Sultanate of  530 0.19%
58 Independent State of Western Samoa 490 0.17%
59 Venezuela, Republic of  480 0.17%
60 Netherlands Including: Aruba, Netherlands Antilles 470 0.17%
61 Djibouti, Republic of 450 0.16%
62 Haiti, Republic of  450 0.16%
63 Comoros, Islamic Federal Republic of  430 0.15%
64 Antigua and Barbuda 240 0.08%
65 Brunei Darussalam  210 0.07%
66 Saint Kitts and Nevis 180 0.06%
67 Saint Lucia 160 0.06%
68 Grenada 150 0.05%
69 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 140 0.05%
70 Kuwait, State of  110 0.04%
71 Barbados  <100
71 Dominica, Commonwealth of  <100
71 Singapore, Republic of <100
71 Trinidad and Tobago, Republic of  <100
75 Bangladesh, Peoples Republic of <50
75 Cambodia  <50
75 Ecuador, Republic of  <50
75 Jordan, Hashemite Kingdom of <50
75 Nauru, Republic of <50
80 Israel, State of <10

Source: Spalding MD, Ravilious C, Green EP (2001) World Atlas of Coral Reefs. University of California Press, Berkeley, USA.

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