A coral reef environment plays a huge role in Entheóphage, so it makes sense to touch on them here, as well as the role they play in Earth’s ecosystems and global diversity.
The term “coral reef” surely conjures an image in the mind’s eye of brightly colored fish, eels, starfish, corals, sponges, anemones, and a plethora of other lifeforms. Reefs are often seen as jewels of the ocean. Rightly so, because even though they make up only .1% of the ocean floor, they are like undersea rainforests, housing or providing sustenance for thousands of species of marine life. They are an essential part of the ocean’s ecosystem.
But reefs do far more than support marine animals. They also provide food, nutrient, and medicinal sources for over a billion humans, protect delicate coastlines from storm surges, and so much more. It’s safe to say they are critical to life on Earth, both above and below the ocean surface.
So when we hear that over 50% of the coral reefs around the world have been destroyed since 1950, and another 40% could be lost in the next thirty years, it should alarm us. It should make us take action to stop whatever is harming them.
What is killing the reefs?
The biggest threat to these reef systems, worldwide, is the warming waters which come from climate change. Heat stress causes the corals to release their algaes, “bleaching” the reef white. Some can recover if the bleaching event passes quickly. But if the heat lingers too long, the corals will starve. Several lengthy heat waves have happened since 1997-98 (during which about 16% of the world’s corals were destroyed), but the worst on record happened in 2016, when a nine-month marine heatwave killed over 30% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Another threat to reefs’ stability and survival is sea levels, which are on the rise. Reef systems depend on shallow waters. Under normal circumstances, the natural growth of corals would raise their levels bit by bit to match the sea level rise. However, between the loss of the reefs in recent years, the accelerated rising of waters, the increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms, and the changing ocean circulation patterns, they may not be able to keep up.
Add to that the increase in ocean acidification and the direct human-related dangers—sedimentation, nutrient washout from agricultural/fertilizer use, pathogens from inadequately treated wastewater, toxic runoff from industry and landfills, not to mention trash and microplastics that end up in the water—and the reefs are fighting a losing battle. And don’t forget coral harvesting, overfishing, and destructive fishing (like blast fishing or net trawling), which increased by 80% between 2000 and 2010 and is now the greatest non-climate-related stressor facing coral reefs.
Unfortunately, these deadly threats are entrenched in our world. If we do nothing, the reefs may all be gone in the next fifty years.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency is implementing Clean Water Act programs to protect water quality in watersheds and coastal zones. Between their programs and those of other organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor the health of coral reefs, we are at least keeping a closer eye on reef health. Hopefully, this will allow the agencies that can give aid to know where and when it is most needed.
Some scientists have suggested that marine protected areas can help, if they’re properly placed and well away from humans, while others hope to use genetic research to restore reefs with more heat-tolerant corals. The process of hand-breeding the hardiest corals, growing them on underwater lattices in an aquatic nursery, then reattaching them to the reef has regrown over 70,000 corals from five different species on Florida’s damaged reefs.
The Nature Conservancy, together with partner organizations, has established Coral Innovation Hubs in various locations, where they are developing techniques to breed much larger coral nurseries, with greater survival rates. With the results of their efforts, they are restoring reefs in a number of marine parks by transplanting the polyps grown in nurseries, including some endangered species, back into their natural habitats.
So what can I do?
All those efforts will help to restore what we’ve lost. But the best practice would be to protect what remains from further damage. The biggest ways you can help maintain our reefs are things I hope you already do.
- Choose a reef-friendly sunscreen. Several common sunscreen ingredients are toxic to corals.
- Don’t leave your fishing lines or nets in the water or on the beach. Clean up behind yourself!
- Be mindful when buying fish for your aquarium. Ensure they were gathered in a sustainable manner, one that didn’t damage the reefs from whence they were taken. Avoid purchasing live coral.
- Volunteer with local clean-up groups to pick up trash at and around the coast, and other inland waterways. Volunteer with wetland restoration projects in your city. Get the whole family, maybe the whole neighborhood, involved.
- If you get the chance, visit a reef and, if you’re comfortable doing so, dive! See for yourself all the delicate animals we’re working to protect. Act responsibly! Don’t anchor your boat on or near the reef, and be sure to look, but not touch!
- Buy mindfully. Be aware of where your money is going, and don’t support companies that dump their wastes into the waterways, or that harvest unsustainably.
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Coral Reef photo by Shaun Low