Coral reefs have a greater effect on our day to day lives than most people realize. Beyond their obvious aesthetic beauty, their biodiversity makes them a valuable natural resource. Millions of independent species live in and around reefs and many of these plants and animals have medicinal uses. Further, there are an estimated 1 million or more species yet to be discovered and cataloged. From an economic standpoint, coral reefs provide a wealth of over 375 billion USD a year. Reefs contribute to their local economy through charter fishing, diving, and tourism. Many businesses around the world choose to locate themselves near coral reefs in order to tap into their tourism value. This leads to more economic benefits to the area. Commercial fisheries in the USA profit over 100 million USD from fishing at or near coral reefs, and the US has, compared to more tropical locations, precious few large reef systems. In tropical developing countries, coral reefs provide over a fourth of their total fish caught. This supplies valuable food to feed their population. In addition to all of these things, coral reefs also serve as a buffer for adjacent shorelines. This prevents erosion, dampens wave action, and protects property from damage.
Coral reefs are a unique and varied environment. Their beauty and biodiversity is only matched by their fragility. They require a tenuous balance of temperature, salinity, and nutrients in order to survive. Any variation in these vital resources can cause them to die. And that is not considering coral damage that can be caused by invasive species, weather, disease, and a variety of negative human impacts. Some of these threats to corals are more easily overcome than others. The most obvious is that of direct human impact or anthropogenic threats. These include pollution, overfishing, coral collection for the aquarium market, and many others. One of the largest threats currently, to coral reefs, is that of pollutant runoff. These may include sediments, certain nutrients, chemicals, oil, debris, or insecticides. Any one of these could easily disturb the delicate balance that corals need to survive. Practices that directly crush or damage corals are another major issue. Damaging fishing techniques and careless diving practices can directly destroy coral structures.
Many countries have regulations and laws in place to help protect coral reefs, but many do not, and we continue to observe coral reef decline. There is always more that can be done. Do you have any ideas for governments that could lead to lessening human impact and protecting the reefs? What could the continued decline of coral reefs mean for our future? With so many undiscovered species, how many diseases could yet be cured? What can we do to help slow or even reverse the global decline of coral reef ecosystems?
For an excellent documentary showing the decline of coral reefs around the world check out “Chasing Coral” on Netflix.