Vanishing Reefs

Beneath the ocean surface rests a creature that outlived the dinosaur, but now scientists fear it could be done in by man.

There are those who say they're doomed.

University of Miami Professor Alina Szmant and her colleague have documented the slow death of the coral reef in the Florida Keys.

Worldwide, ten percent of this limestone jewel has already disappeared, and two-thirds of what remains is in jeopardy.

Threatened by overfishing, careless divers, broken anchors and manmade pollution, scientists say that waters warmed by El Nino have strangled the coral and made a bad situation worse.

"We must save them," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit says. "A world without coral reefs, without vibrant fisheries; without a chance for our kids to grow up in a world of such magic and mystery is just unthinkable."

Babbit took a look for himself on Tuesday. He's in charge of President Clinton's U.S. Coral Reef Task Force that convened for the first time this week in search of answers.

Their mission isn't just to save an underwater tourist attraction -- coral reefs provide needed nutrients to most of the fish that feed the world.

Inside this undersea creature, medical science discovered anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agents.

"We've only begun to discover the kinds of medicines to be found on coral reefs," says Szmant. "If these animals become extinct before we have a chance to try and protect them, then mankind loses because we're losing some of the ways nature helps us take care of ourselves."

President Clinton's task force will take six months to find solutions -- favoring education over legislation. But time, like this ocean treasure, is slipping away with every sunset.

Reported by Byron Pitts
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