A Deep Dive into Reefs: Why Protecting Corals Advocates for Human Survival

A Deep Dive into Reefs: Why Protecting Corals Advocates for Human Survival

Pavona gigantea - Corals of Costa Rica

Coral reefs in Peril

Coral reefs, polar bears, pandas and sea turtles are adored across cultures and known as the poster children of climate change. While each of these organisms has a difficult journey of survival ahead, the ancient coral reefs have arguably been suffering degradation since the 70’s. Coral reefs have been around for some 50 million years, outliving the dinosaurs and witnessing the birth of all other forms of complex life. These organisms represent the beauty and interconnectivity of our world. They are the foundations of coastal ecosystems, their rainbow collages attracting a diverse interaction of plants and animals. Yet the recent decline and death of coral reefs sends a shocking message at what we risk to lose if business continues as usual.

Oceans Heating Up

It is common knowledge that ocean temperatures are heating up, and although this represents one of the many threats to these delicate structures it is far from being the only one. Corals are also affected by the pollutants that find their way into rivers and streams from pesticides used to maximize crop yield. In addition to these silent killers polluting the water cycle, habitat destruction from coastal construction and the overly extractive fishing industry threatens the health of reefs. Finally, maybe the most dangerous of all is our addiction to fossil fuel consumption and the smoky trail of carbon dioxide we humans leave in our backwash.

Although the ocean is able to absorb a quarter of carbon dioxide emitted, there are still consequences to our incessant gobbling. In this simmering hotbed our corals are surviving in, their first stress response is to dispel their food source, the algae. As they lose these plants and subsequently their coloration, the surrounding organisms also feel the loss as their food source depletes. The stressed corals turn a skeletal white, and as the bleaching continues, they eventually turn as gray as tombstones. 

bleached coral
coastal development

Pressure on the reefs

Though reefs thrive in coastal paradises where conditions are idyllic and picturesque, the beauty of these habitats is a double-edged sword. As demand for these utopias increases, so does the pollution and runoff from development and tourism. As more people develop in and around the tropics, the pollution which comes with development and human consumption also grows. With this logic, it is no surprise that coastal communities are among the first to feel the effects of climate change

While the climate crisis often-times feels like a looming catastrophe, protecting coral reefs would trigger a chain reaction in sustaining the local ecosystems both above and beneath the ocean.  The urgency needed to preserve the remaining survivors can be grasped by painting a stark picture of what our world risks to lose with the extinction of coral reefs. A coral-less future would mean 6 million reef fishers without work; a net loss of $9.6 billion dollars to the tourism industry; 1 million marine species with no place to live, spawn, or feed; coastal communities with no natural protection against storms, tsunamis, flooding, and erosion; not to mention the incalculable loss of potentially life-saving medicines researchers discover in these underwater medicine cabinets (Basic Information About Coral Reefs). In short, our world without corals is hardly even a world at all. What are we without the very life that supports our human existence? 

coral bleaching
dead coral reefs

Dark situation

With less than 50% of coral reefs already dead, these submerged skeletons serve as a foreboding message: to save the coral reefs is to save ourselves.We are at a crucial moment in history, and our response to  the climate crisis is pivotal, but passivity is the most dangerous option of all. 

Although our current situation may feel dark, resilience is our silver lining. Coral restoration projects are underway across the globe helping to stabilize reefs. Restoration efforts assist in maintaining the base populations of coral species, giving more time for corals to adapt to changing conditions. This type of recovery work, however, will not restore reefs to their pristine state. Instead it buys time for the corals to adapt. That being said, restoration is most effective in conjunction with fishing quotas, Marine Protected Areas, and individual actions. 

coral internship

So what can you do?

That being said, there is a wide range of behaviors you can do that can reduce your negative impact on our planet. The following list includes suggested actions that the coral reefs, polar bears, pandas, and sea turtles need from all of us:

 

  1. Participate in Coral Restoration

– Take part in a Coral Internship 

– Enhance your knowledge of marine life with a Coral Reef Research Certification

  1. Be a conscious tourist

– Use Reef Friendly sunscreen 

– Be a Responsible Snorkeler and Scuba Diver: Never touch or harm corals/marine life 

  1. Support environmentally friendly companies 

–  Purchase organic products 

– Buy from sustainable fisheries (or avoid eating animal products altogether!) 

  1. Measure and manage your impact

Calculate your carbon footprint

– Practice zero waste living and stop using plastic bags!

  1. Raise awareness 

– Talk with your family, friends, and coworkers about the climate crisis

– Establish sustainability action groups in your school/work and come up with solutions in your own communities

 

Written by Anna Patton

Anna Love is a writer, biologist, advocate, massage therapist, and scuba diver. She writes about environmental movement, healing work, and science fiction. When she is not playing sand volleyball or reading, you can likely find her practicing handstands or meditating. —
Anna Lovelace Patton
anna.patton15@gmail.com

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