The Decline of Coral Reefs

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.

-Ben Hefner

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19 thoughts on “The Decline of Coral Reefs

  1. The decline of coral reefs shows how many environmental problems are restorative rather than preventative. It also exemplifies how the destruction or declination of a lurking variable can have detrimental effects on another variable. In this case, the decline of coral reefs has led to beach erosion, which many people are noticing, especially as beaches lose tourism to certain areas (and thus, beaches start to lose money).

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  2. Thanks for posting this blog! It was an interesting read and I didn’t realize how much coral reefs can impact us. A few weeks ago, I just went snorkeling in Key West and noticed a lot of the coral was on the verge of dying. I think spreading awareness globally can help especially because humans are one of the main reasons they are dying.

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  3. I think that one of the main issues with the decline of coral reefs is public knowledge. For myself, I knew that coral reefs were “endangered” but I didn’t know to what extent. I think that a broader public knowledge on the subject would go a long way. Most people of the world don’t know about the benefits of coral reefs and the destruction by human impact. You do state that some governments have laws put into place to protect the reefs, but how do they control what happens in the reefs? Are there people that patrol the coral reefs? I believe that if the reefs were treated like the United States National Forests, they could be better protected. I’m not saying to patrol the waters to keep people out, but to create international law to protect them. Our national parks are highly protected by a department our government. I think if several nations came together to put a similar structure, we could better protect the coral reefs.

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  4. One can’t expect to have a coral reef “park ranger” like you find in our national forests, due to the vast size of the ocean and number of different coral reefs.I think the answer to protecting coral reefs, is actually in the industries that rely on thriving reefs. It would be hard to ban people from entering coral reef structures or make some active protection policy. If policy can start by educating individual’s on how their actions damage the industry in which they work, only then can we save the coral reefs. Its easy to see before and after pictures of coral reefs to notice the damage we have caused, but it is not so easy to associate that damage to industry dollars lost. Money is power, and if we can educate the industry on how much they are losing per year, maybe more efficient fishing, diving, and recreational methods can be developed to save our reefs. Such a process may slow the degradation of natural coral reef structure, to allow artificial reefs to replenish what has already been lost.

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  5. I agree with Chris’s statement. Those in the industry that are directly benefiting from coral reefs will be the most viable candidates to help protect them. Education would significantly assist in getting people involved who have the power to do so. While government regulation can be effective, you do not want to put any business owners in jeopardy with overly stringent regulations. Therefore, a balance between protecting the coral reefs and the local industry is key when considering proper legislation. This legislation could include commercial fishing limitations or even a tax on those in the fishing industry that could be used for pollution clean ups.

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  6. In addition to educating everyone about the dangers of the decline of coral reefs, maybe the federal government could step in and isolate some areas to be left alone from human interaction. I understand this would cause a significant monetary loss to many businesses, but it’s very apparent that humans are the reason for the decline. There could be a type of reef rotation to where a specific reef is protected by the federal government for 5 or 10 years at a time. Hopefully, without the direct physical human interaction in the area, marine life would flourish, and the reef could be restored.

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  7. I enjoyed reading this post about coral reefs! I believe people don’t fully grasp the enormous variety of species that coral reefs host. According the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other aquatic environment. Additionally they suspect that 1 to 8 million species that live in or around the reefs have yet to be discovered. Like you mentioned, these species could potentially provide a number of different medical services. With all of this beauty and potential resources living in or around the reefs, it is imperative that we begin protecting them.

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  8. Thank you for sharing this. I have always been under the impression that coral reefs were heavily managed and protected. I supposed this was because I’ve always heard how hefty of a fine it was to harm reefs in any way. In response to Jordan’s post above, from my experience, many coral reefs are marked with buoys, telling you where you can and can’t drive a boat or fish. I agree, however, that these lines are not heavily protected and could use more management and attention. It may not be this easy, but on the coast of Georgia, the DNR put a restriction on keeping any bottom fish(i.e. Red Snapper), and since, according to friends that fish heavily, the population has flourished. I feel that a year or two’s ban on the drastically declining commercial fish populations may help out.. or it may destroy the food chain..

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    1. It is truly disheartening when you realize that most people are not aware that the great barrier reef is all but destroyed. The economic benefits which continue to drive the fishing and tourism industry are, in my opinion, negligible when taking into account the thousands of years it took for diverse reef ecosystems to form. We are at the point where complete recovery of the barrier reef is still in question. About 97% of the great barrier reef is sun-bleached, and techniques used to reverse this bleaching have only been successful in small scale. The scariest part for me is thinking about how the destruction of these delicate ecosystems will impact the rest of their regions.

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  9. I worry a lot about the future of coral reefs. As you mentioned they are such a delicate ecosystem that is vulnerable to human impacts. Some types of pollution local governments can prevent with regulations. However because they are a part of a larger ocean ecosystem any changes to the ocean will affect coral reefs too. Australia has been doing a lot to try and protect the Great Barrier Reef but it is still suffering from large amounts of bleaching due to ocean acidification. I fear many local efforts to save coral reefs are only bandaid solutions and that the only way to provide long term survival for them is through global efforts to reduce CO2.

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  10. I think it’s very important to show people how environmental degradation can affect us, and this blog does a good job of that. Coral reefs show how interdependent the organisms in ecosystems can be between each other. Could corals serve as an example for other types of ecosystems as well? Thanks for sharing.

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  11. I like Jordan’s idea of designating areas to be left alone by humans for periods of time, but I also feel that many of the businesses that depend on reefs for profit would be opposed to it. It’s hard to find an economically feasible solution to this issue, especially because the biggest reasons for decline, like pollution, aren’t directly happening at the reef. It’s easy to stop the capture of fish and other flora and fauna for sale in aquariums, but it’s harder to regulate the sort of sunscreens that people wear while snorkeling, even though we know that a common ingredient damages young corals (https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/feb14/sunscreen.html). I think that ultimately a long term solution will be focused on preventing the spread of pollutants into the reef environment, but am unsure how that will play out.

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  12. After watching Shark Week this past year, I have really started to put serious thought and consideration into the lives of all of Earth’s creatures both on land and in the ocean particularly the ones unspoken for. Similar to how Shark Week strives to educate and encourage people that sharks are more than man-eating machines, I believe this post advocates that coral is more than something aesthetic and beautiful. It is a powerful driving force behind a lot of oceanic events that is taken for granted. I think before the government can do anything they need to be able to understand and respect coral for not only what it looks like but for its keystone contribution to our oceans. I will definitely be watching this documentary!

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  13. Seeing this happens makes me wonder if this is happening to this ecosystem, what could happen to ours if nothing is done. I also believe that if it is brought to more peoples attention what is happening to the coral that others may try to start the process of trying to restore them and/or start the process of trying to get regulations passed to protect them.

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  14. Pollutant runoff can be a huge problem in almost every area of human development or interaction. Anything that is put on the ground or released into the air has a high potential to make it into waterways if there is not some sort of filtration. In development areas, the best way people have found to filter runoff is with increased plant life. Strategically adding plant life in areas where the runoff intersects allows the water to be filtered before entering water systems and ultimately the oceans in this instance. I am sure that industries have to account for this problem when building and planning operation, but I wonder if they are doing enough. If there were further litigation so that more of the runoff was filtered, I believe that pollutant runoff would not be at the top of the list for endangering coral reefs.

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  15. The decline of coral reefs is a sad and potentially scary issue. With medicinal affects of coral reefs, I think it is important to make sure that they are protected. A way to slow down a decline in coral reefs is the knowledge of what potentially a coral reef can do, more people need to be informed about the issue at hand. I read in above comments that many coral reefs are marked but the must be more ways to protect them?

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  16. The decline of coral reefs is an issue that I think is highly understated. With the number of civilizations that are still highly dependont upon sea life to meet their daily needs one would think that this issue would be more well known. I am curious as to how far gone the coral reefs actually are. Do you feel like any action that we take now will be enough to stop or even reverse the damage that we have caused, or at this point are we just prolonging the inevitable?

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  17. Coral reefs are such an important part of our oceans and their value, as you described, goes far beyond their beauty. It really is a scary though to imagine the rate at which they are declining. The decline is especially evident in large reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef. It is thought of as such a important landmark and it provides life to so many species of plants and animals as well as humans. Sadly it seems like the probability of stopping this decline, or even slowing it down, is not very high at this point. However, doing anything to help is better than doing nothing at all…

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  18. Very informative post! I was unaware of many of the benefits of coral reefs other than their aesthetic and touristic value. I was especially surprised to learn about the medicinal uses of coral reefs and the monetary effect that they have on the economy. This post has certainly raised my awareness on the subject.

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