The Importance of Coral Reefs

Once the reefs are gone, it may not be the end of the world, but it would be the end of something wonderful, ancient, rich, and lifegiving.

In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.~ Baba Dioum

Whether you’re a scuba diver or not, it’s almost inevitable that you’ve heard talk about saving the coral reefs. Even as a scuba diver, it’s possible you’ve dismissed these notions. It’s possible you think the threat is overstated or that the screeches you hear are from chicken littles or ‘tree-huggers’. It’s also possible that you don’t really understand why it matters in the first place.  They’re just a bunch of coral, right? I mean, as a diver they’re pretty to look at, but they couldn’t really be that big of a deal, right? Wrong.

Please first understand that I’m not the type to latch onto bandwagons or look for doom and gloom to preach at uninterested folks. I do research before forming an opinion and even then I’m leery about hopping onto a soapbox. I don’t want to be a naysayer; I don’t want to try and take away anyone’s fun. But I also don’t want to live in a world without coral reefs, and I daresay neither do you.  To be honest, I’m not even sure we could.  Yet, that end result is a real possibility.

I’m not going to go into detail about the zoology of corals for that requires way too much Latin for my tastes.  Suffice it to say that corals colonies are the largest biological structures on earth.  They are unique and complex communities many thousands of years in the making.  So what do they do and why are they important? I know I certainly tend to zone out when things get too science-y so I’m going to try and keep this brief and non-technical in the hopes of holding the attention of more people.

Home to millions
To start with, coral reefs are home to 25% of all marine fish species. Let’s pause here and let that sink in. Twenty-five percent. One quarter of all of the species of fish in the oceans call a coral reef their home. This number is even more astounding when you understand that reefs cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface. The reefs provide food, shelter, and protection for adult and young marine life. They’re breeding grounds, cleaning stations, nurseries, napping lounges, buffets, sleeping quarters, singles bars, and hiding places for countless animals both predator and prey.  So, there are a lot of fish and other animals that would be homeless and/or dead without the reefs.

CO2 Regulation
Coral reefs regulate the carbon dioxide levels in the oceans by turning the CO2 into limestone (which eventually becomes our beaches).  Without their efforts, the CO2 levels in the oceans would reach unsustainable levels; levels approaching what we’re seeing now, as a matter of fact.  Right now we’re in a vicious and detrimental cycle where we have unapologetically destroyed more than a quarter of the reefs in the oceans (by some estimates a third), impacting and raising the CO2 levels, which in turn harms and kills even more coral reefs. As long as this cycle continues, the coral reefs and associated fisheries will continue to die.  As the coral dies, so do the fisheries supported by them. As the CO2 levels increase, more fish are impacted and killed and even more fisheries are affected, even those not directly associated with coral reefs.  There is a chain in the ocean and we are in the process of actively breaking a link in that chain.

Food and Livelihood
Because so many fish and other animals call the reefs their home, over 500 million people directly rely on coral reefs for food and livelihood.  Those are just the numbers directly affected, they don’t include the millions who are indirectly affected due to economy and tourism. A large portion of people in rich coastal regions rely on fish as their primary source of protein – fish supported by coral reefs.  We already have a hard time feeding the people of the world now, if coral reefs die that job will become even more difficult and the chain reaction could be devastating.

Coastal Protection
Reefs protect millions of dollars worth of property along coastlines, protect harbors, and beaches, valuable ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrass meadows, and offer some protection from damaging tropical storms. Coastal erosion and flooding are minimized which helps reduce loss of property and the need to build our own artificial defenses. Just look at the before and after Hurricane Sandy to see how much erosion can happen with just one storm.

Medicines to treat asthma, arthritis, cancer, and many anti-virals and anti-inflammatories have come from the coral reefs. The biodiversity present in a single coral reef opens the doors to countless possibilities for medical treatments and advancements. When it comes to such advancements, some say that we’re hundreds of times more likely to find the answers in the ocean than on the land.  Losing the reefs throws those possibilities away.

I’m not going to sit here and predict with wild abandonment that if the reefs die, so will the human race.  But I will go so far as to say that’s not an altogether impossible scenario even if it is, in my opinion, a little bit far fetched. It’s quite possible that the oceans would recover and adapt, and so would we. It’s quite possible that only a few million of us would starve, countless marine life would be lost forever, and indescribable beauty would be destroyed but that we would continue to limp along. The thing is, do we really want to find out what will happen?  Once the reefs are gone, they’re gone. It may not be the end of the world, but it certainly would be the end of something wonderful, ancient, rich, and lifegiving. We would, without a doubt, feel the effects of it all over the world for many years to come.

What can you do

I plan on writing additional articles about what we do as a species to destroy reefs, and what we can do as individuals to help. For now, here’s a link to some resources on the subject to help you discover the changes you can make to help keep our oceans alive.