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The destruction of mangrove forests is threatening fish populations in the Caribbean, according to research by an international group of scientists.

A study published in this week's Nature suggests that mangroves — areas with trees growing in shallow water — play an important role in protecting young coral-reef fish from predators. When the fish mature, they leave the swamps and move on to reefs.

"These swamps are thought to be no great loss when there are local pressures to build shrimp farms, new houses or tourist resorts," says one of the researchers, Peter Mumby of the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. Mangroves are one of the world's most threatened ecosystems, and are being destroyed faster than tropical rainforests.

"Urgent action needs to be taken to preserve mangroves if Caribbean fishers and coral reefs are to be preserved," Mumby says.

More than 100,000 fish from 64 different species were tracked as part of the study, which involved researchers from Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States. Fish species most likely to be affected by the destruction of mangroves include the rainbow parrotfish and the snapper.

Link to research paper by Mumby et al in Nature

Reference: Nature 427, 533 (2004)

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