updated 2/21/2006 9:03:03 AM ET 2006-02-21T14:03:03

Most coral reefs escaped "serious damage" from the 2004 tsunami and should recover in less than 10 years, though much will depend on local government's protecting marine ecosystems, according to a report released Monday.

The report, compiled by Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, found that reefs in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand were hardest hit, with damage reaching up to 30 percent in some places.  But much like earlier studies, it found that human activities like illegal fishing and climate change pose the greatest risk to the future of these reefs.

"Most coral reefs will recover from these stresses in five to 10 years, provided that there are no other major stresses," according to the report released in the Thai resort island of Phuket, which was damaged by the tsunami.

"The tsunami caused some localized damage, but ongoing human stresses pose a far greater threat to the survival of Indian Ocean coral reefs and mangrove forests," the report found, adding "stronger conservation and protection of coral reefs and other coastal resources" is needed to enhance their resistance to future disasters.

The Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami devastated mostly rural, coastal communities in 12 countries, leaving at least 216,000 people dead or missing and more than a million homeless.

Bleaching from warm waters
The coastal ecosystems were spared some of the worst damage, partly because they have been so badly damaged over the years by dynamite fishing, coastal runoff and development. Some reefs also had suffered bleaching in 1998 from warming ocean waters, and had barely begun to recover when the tsunami hit.

The hardest hit animals were turtles, which lost nesting sites in Thailand and India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, said Clive Wilkinson, the report's lead author. "There were at least two key nesting sites lost in the Andaman's but now we're seeing these turtles just go to other beaches and find new nesting sites," he said.

The report called on tsunami-devastated nations to proclaim exclusion zones to protect people from future tsunamis and storm surges, and to adopt government policies that better protect the reefs.  It also called for the development of alternative livelihoods for coastal villagers so they put less stress on the marine ecosystems.

The report also called for relief agencies to ensure that rebuilding supplies are not taken from coastal forest or the reefs, noting that sand and rock have been dredged from some coral reefs, and that construction is occurring in vulnerable areas.

"These practices could lead to future damage including landslides in the forests, sediments flooding onto reefs, and coral reefs with reduced potential to protect shorelines from storm surges," the report said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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