We Can Still Save Half of the World’s Coral Reefs

Reader Contribution by Darlene May Lee and Earth Law Center
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Coral reef ecosystem at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Did you know that coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the seafloor but provide food, shelter and safe breeding areas for 25% of marine species? More than 4,000 species of fish and thousands of other plants and animals call reefs their home.

Meet the Architects of the Coral Reefs

Hard polyps, or individual corals, use calcium carbonate to create a hard shell (exoskeleton) around their soft bodies (which don’t have a backbone). When individual polyps die, they leave their exoskeleton while new polyps add their own exoskeleton thus growing the reef.

Tiny algae called zooxanthellae add color to the corals by forming a partnership with the clear polyps and their white exoskeletons. Algae get shelter and take up nutrients not needed by the corals like carbon dioxide and nitrogen while polyps get nutrients and the calcium carbonate they need for their exoskeleton. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/kits/corals/coral02_zooxanthellae.html

Threats toThe Coral Reefs

1, About a fifth of all coral in the world has died in the past three years. Some experts believe that there is now just half the amount of coral that was in the oceans 40 years ago

2. From draining septic tanks directly into the ocean  to ocean acidification, decades of carelessness about ocean well being has resulted in the alarming disappearance of coral reefs. Other coral reef threats include:

3. Burning fossil fuels releases excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is then absorbed by the ocean, causing it to become more acidic. Unfortunately, acidic environments make it more difficult for coral to survive.

4. Overfishing can cause imbalances in the ocean ecosystem which devastate coral reefs, dynamite fishing blows reefs into pieces.

5. Rising ocean temperatures cause coral bleaching. Algae produce reactive oxygen at high temperatures which is toxic to both the algae and coral, causing them to separate hence the corals lose their color. If the algae are unable to recolonize the coral within a few months of the separation, their absence can result in the death of the coral, as the polyps are unable to survive for long without the algae.

New Approaches

Growing awareness of both the fragility and importance of coral reefs has resulted in innovative new approaches:

OneReef uses a market-based approach to support communities and local partners to protect 350,000 acres of reef for an annual cost of $2/acre.

Hawaiian lawmakers passed a bill to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients of non-prescription sunscreens which have been shown to damage coral reefs. The bill, which is the first of its kind in the world, will go into effect on January 1, 2021. Researchers found that 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions end up in reefs around the world a year

SECORE, a global network of scientists, public aquarium professionals, and local stakeholders brings a holistic approach including seeding reefs with sexually reproduced coral offspring to maximize resilience. http://www.secore.org/site/home.html

How Earth Law Strengthens Reef Protection

Earth law can protect the ocean in the way that corporate law protects a business. By recognizing Marine Protected Areas as having the right to exist, thrive and evolve – with guardians appointed to speak on behalf of those ocean ecosystems, Earth Law gives standing to local communities to protect their coral reefs in the court of law. As an example of how this would work, Organización para la Conservación de Cetaceos (OCC) and ELC have partnered in Uruguay to try to establish legal rights for the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary in Uruguay

Established in 2013, the Sanctuary faces increasing threats from ships, pollution, and unsustainable fishing. Recognizing rights of the Sanctuary as part of the management plan will provide clear guidelines for permitted and non-permitted activities in the area, thus reducing the threats on that ocean ecosystem. Coral reefs could be protected in similar ways. 

Join us to protect the coral reef. Earth Law Center serves to connect and catalyze local partnerships, consisting of communities, indigenous groups, and guardians, to create new laws, which uphold and defend nature’s rights against harm.

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Darlene May Lee is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, which works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. She works to build a force of advocates for nature’s rights at the local, state, national, and international levels. Connect with Earth Law Center on TwitterFacebookand LinkedIn. Read all of Darlene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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