Coral Reefs

The Rainforests of the Sea

Article by Aditya Seth

Edited by Tomer Zilbershtein

The rainforests of the sea, coral reefs are essentially ridges of rock - formed by deposits of coral built over time - which are vital ecosystems for over 25% of the ocean's biodiversity! This is amazing since the total area of the world’s coral reefs amounts to less than 1% of the actual sea area. Coral Reefs can be generally found in tropical oceans near the equator, and the largest reef in the world being Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Coral reefs start to form when coral larvae tack onto hard surfaces, such as submerged rocks near islands and continents. Then, as they grow, the coral reefs develop into one of three forms; fringing reefs, barrier reefs, or atolls. If you visit a reef, you might chance an encounter with animals such as jellyfishes, crustaceans, eels, and some of the world's most brilliantly colored fish species! In addition to providing a habitat for countless species, they protect coastlines from turbulent, damaging wave action and tropical storms. These ecosystems are the main source of nitrogen and a variety of other nutrients found in all strata of the food chain - but their benefits don't stop there! They assist in nutrient recycling and help in carbon and nitrogen fixing. Moreover, $1.5 billion is generated by the Great Barrier Reef of Australia through tourism alone every year.

So, What is Happening to the World's Coral Reefs?

Unfortunately, 1 quarter of the coral reef habitats in the world is damaged and can’t be repaired. In addition, two-thirds are under severe threat. Amongst the threats facing reefs are higher sea temperatures due to climate change, careless regulation of the tourism industry, destructive fishing practices, pollution, overfishing, sedimentation, and coral mining.

The tourism industry can threaten these habitats because people have an affinity for touching the reefs, and messing around with the sediments during dives, interfering with the delicate balance of symbiosis that has sustained these vital ecosystems for millennia. Destructive fishing practices - such as bottom-trawling - can devastate individual coral populations, with the effects being drawn out over entire reefs! Human waste and oil pollution can cause an overgrowth of algae, cutting off the reef’s access sunlight and altering the biochemistry of the surrounding waters, possibly leading to coral bleaching. Overfishing disrupts the balance of the ecosystem massively - one that is so delicate because of all the individual processes that take place in reefs. Erosion from construction or other human activities can cause large amounts of sediment runoff to enter the ocean, blocking sunlight critical for reef survival. As if the consequences of indirect human activity were not enough, coral mining is an industry which actively harms reef health, with many cases of live coral being used commercially for building roads, bricks, or even preparing cement.

How Can We Solve this Issue?

As hopeless as the situation may seem, there is hope. I'm reminded of the late Environmentalist Wangari Maathai's "I am the Hummingbird" campaign, where she insists that a little effort can go a long way - that if everyone did their little part, we could see great change. We can turn this situation around, and we can save the world's remaining coral reefs! We just need to remember some simple guidelines.

Whenever you go to the beach, it doesn't take too much effort to clean up some of the trash around you. It also helps to make sure you don't touch or displace any of the shells or animals (yes, even that really cute starfish you want a selfie with). If you fish, make sure to only catch species on the Sustainable Species list, and to catch only what you need. Back at home, it's important to remember not to pour any chemicals down the drain because those chemicals end up in the ocean and can hurt reefs. Avoiding shampoos, lotions, or body washes that contain microbeads - plastics that are incredibly small and can pass through many of the filters between your house and the ocean - can also have a tremendously positive impact on the ocean's health. Last but not least, sustaining an effort to reduce your carbon footprint can help prevent the warming of oceans to critical levels due to climate change - a threshold that directly affects reefs globally. As stated by Marine Biologist Sylvia Earle, “. . . half [of] the [world's] coral reefs are still in pretty good shape, a jeweled belt around the middle of the planet. There's still time, but not a lot, to turn things around.” If we all do our part, then surely we can save the beautiful reefs of our planet!

On a quick note, go check out the documentary "Chasing Coral" on Netflix! A fabulously crafted piece on one of our world's most delicate and vital ecosystems.