By now you have probably heard the ominous warnings that the coral reefs are dying. But when was the last time you heard of one of these abundant habitats teeming with life?
While 63 percent of coral reefs off Belize’s coast face threat by human activities, one of them thrives. A recent New York Times article featured a marine reserve called Glover’s Reef. The area’s well-enforced fishing restrictions offer a hopeful outline for other reefs in need of conservation. Important members of a reef ecosystem, such as sting rays and sharks, swim alongside a “robust” fish population. Indeed, a marine biologist working on the project calls it one of the healthiest in the region. While most of the reserve allows fishing, rangers regularly monitor fishermen’s findings to protect restricted species. Fishing is prohibited altogher in 20 percent of the 87,000-acre reserve.
How We Depend on Coral Reefs
Most of us recognize that coral reefs are lovely and rich but might not appreciate the importance of these lush ecosystems besides their jaw-dropping aesthetic beauty. A 2000 study by three paleontologists examined worldwide fossil records dating back 540 million years and discovered that coral reefs are literally breeding grounds for evolution. Of 6,612 genera of marine species studied, 1,426 of them originated from reef ecosystems. Many of these species eventually migrate to other ecosystems, so reefs actually diversify the entire ocean.
Coral reefs also protect coastal land from erosion by waves and storms. In addition, the rich variety of life in coral reefs offers an abundance of food and medicines that humans either rely upon heavily or might discover someday. Diverse ecosystems such as rainforests have produced plants hailed as cures for prostate cancer, malaria and other human illnesses and diseases. So fostering highly diverse ecosystems like coral reefs truly benefits us in the long run. And the human economies surrounding these hotbeds of life heavily depend upon the tourism it brings, which sustains the communities. Overall, the reefs contribute to an estimated $375 billion in goods and services, although they cover less than 1 percent of the earth’s surface.
The State of Reef Conservation
Unfortunately, most reefs are not well-protected like Glover’s Reef. More than 70 percent of coral reef habitats were either threatened or destroyed as of 2004, with 20 percent harmed beyond repair. The 2008 State of the Coral Reef Ecosystems Report states that 58 percent of reefs are threatened by bleaching, polluted runoff, overfishing, over-harvesting, shoreline development and global climate change (which warms the oceans, harming the reefs).
The 2006 Census of Marine Life found that only 18.7 percent of coral reefs reside in marine protected areas (MPAs), like Glover’s Reef, and just 2 percent are protected enough to prevent further degradation. The quality of MPAs worldwide varies widely depending on local regulations and the MPA’s size and isolation. The reefs could disappear in just 40 years if we allow them to die at this rate, so we need quality MPAs now more than ever!
To take action, visit Take Part’s web page on coral reef activism. You can contribute funds to adopt or rescue a coral reef or write a letter to your congress representative. Also, know whether or not the fish you eat were fished in a sustainable manner by visiting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fish Watch list.
Photo courtesy of David Burdick