FYA: For Your Awareness
Coral reefs are considered the “rainforests of the sea” named for their biodiversity as a habitat for approximately 25% of marine life.
Coral grows at a rate of one inch per year but is being destroyed at a much faster rate; reefs in the Caribbean are being lost at an alarming rate with a decline of nearly 90% of live coral in recent decades. It is thought that nearly 75% or the worlds’ coral reefs are extinct or threatened. The global economic value of coral reefs is estimated to be in the hundred billion dollar range.
What is a Coral Reef?
Coral reefs are underwater structures made from calcium carbonate secreted by coral. They live in relatively shallow tropical waters and occupy less than .1% of the ocean’s surface but provide a habitat for 25% of all marine species. Found in shallow waters in tropical and subtropical climates, water temperatures range between 68 – 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Coral is formed by living stone-like coral polyps and red and green coralline algae formed over thousands of years and include both hard and soft corals. Baby coral is like a tiny jellyfish and looks for something to attach itself to, usually a reef. Then it builds itself a hard shell from carbon dioxide combined with calcium from the water to make calcium carbonate, or limestone. Reefs are built up over many years. A coral reef can contain as many as 60 types of coral and hundreds of species of fish.
Coral reefs are a source of food and protection for many species of marine plant and animal life. Some of these include clown fish, sea horses, peppermint shrimp, lion fish,porcupine fish, anemones, sponges, crustaceans, mollusks, sea turtles, sharks, and dolphins. Competition for resources such as food, space and sunlight are some of the primary factors in determining the abundance and diversity of organisms on a reef. All of the animals living in or around a coral reef are part of a complex food web, depending on each other for food.
Some animals such as the sea anemone and the clown fish have developed a symbiotic relationship. Anemones are stationery and rely on the current delivering small fish or shrimp which they sting with their poisonous tentacles. Clown fish are immune to the stinging tentacles and can live in and around them eating animals that would be a threat to the anemone. These symbiotic relationships can be thrown out of balance by small changes to the environment like raising of the water temperature due to global warming.
Where are Coral Reefs located?
The majority of coral reefs are found in the Indo Western Pacific region which includes the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Pacific – Australia, and Southeast Asia, as well as Atlantic and Caribbean. They need warm weather to thrive and are happiest in water temperatures between 68-97 degrees Fahrenheit. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is one of the more famous coral reefs and also the longest, extending for 1800 miles. Less well known but equally as colorful is the Rainbow Reef in Fiji. The coral reefs in Guam are thought to contain 3,500 species of plants and animals with over 200 types of coral. Some reefs in Hawaii are very isolated from other reefs and have unique species of fish not seen anywhere else such as the colorful saddle wrasse.
Why are Coral Reefs important to protect?
Coral reefs are important to protect because they contain some of the largest areas of biodiversity for marine life as the “rainforests” of the ocean, supporting thousands of marine species. Without coral reefs using up excess carbon dioxide generated from the atmosphere, we might run out of clean air to breathe. Coral reefs also provide food and jobs to populations worldwide from fish and seafood products. Coral reefs are important to tourism by providing recreation opportunities to marvel at their beauty while swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. And coral reefs also protect shorelines and inhabitants, and support human life through the development of life-saving pharmaceuticals.
When are Coral Reefs under threat?
Coral reefs are under the biggest threat from humans. Major threats to coral reefs and their habitats include climate change, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, careless tourists, resort development, mining, sedimentation, storms and rising sea levels.
Climate change is causing the ocean temperature to rise which will result in the death of many species of marine life, including coral reefs. Carbon dioxide from the environment and pollution affect the acidity of the ocean destroying coral reefs. Bleaching of coral is caused by warmer temperatures both from climate change and variations in water temperature caused by El Niño or La Niña wreaks havoc on coral.
Unsustainable fishing practices by overfishing and and using dynamite and other dangerous compounds, destroys the reefs and they often can’t recover. Recreational users can damage coral through their negligence or by taking pieces of the reef as a souvenir. Other factors that threaten coral reefs are debris from coastal development washing into the ocean, sewage run off, chemicals and fertilizers, which alters the biology of the ocean making it more difficult for coral reefs to maintain their delicate balance.
According to WWF, roughly one-quarter of coral reefs worldwide are already considered damaged beyond repair, with another two-thirds under serious threat.
Who is protecting and preserving coral reefs?
Ocean Conservancy has been an advocate of healthy oceans for over 40 years to ensure balanced, sustainable use of the ocean’s resources, to restore important habitats and help existing ecosystems adapt to a changing environment.
Reef Relief is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to improving and protecting coral reefs.
NOAA operates a Coral Reef Conservation Program to protect coral reefs in U.S. and territories including Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaiian Islands.
Nature Conservancy is working to study, conserve and protect healthy coral reefs around the world.
Ocean Foundation has established a Coral Reef Fund to provide grants for projects that focus on better managing fisheries and tourism development, developing sustainable coral reef products, establishing marine reserves, and scientific research that can lead to new breakthroughs in medicine and biotechnology.
World Wildlife Fund has been protecting coral reefs since the 1970s.
How can we protect coral reefs?
There are many way to support and protect coral reefs. Conserve water which reduces excess water runoff that finds its way into the oceans; reduce pollution and don’t leave trash on beaches which can find its way into the ocean; be a reef friendly tourist by obeying snorkeling and diving restrictions and not taking marine life or reefs as souvenirs; use only eco- friendly fertilizers and chemicals; reduce your carbon emissions and drive less often; patronize reef friendly businesses; plant a tree which reduces water runoff; participate in reef cleanup efforts; and donate money to organizations that support and restore coral reefs.