Earth’s Coral Reefs Face A Cruel Reality
Colorful plant life, natural world wonder or vacation location often come to mind when you first think of coral reefs. But these underwater environments are much more than just a pretty sight. They are complex ecosystems that support about 25 percent of all marine life, benefitting the natural world and humans alike. And yet, at the rate that we are destroying our coral reefs, they won’t be here for our posterity to admire.
If you remember the movie Finding Nemo, the coral reef—in this case the Great Barrier Reef—seemed to support hundreds of species. In reality, reefs support over one million species. Even coral itself is a living entity.
Coral is a soft-bodied organism that attaches itself to the ocean floor, where it then divides into thousands of clones. As time goes on, these reefs expand into other colonies and create the giant reefs as we know them. According to National Geographic, some of the reefs we see today began growing 50 million years ago!
On top of sustaining marine life, reefs provide industry support to millions of people, generating about $375 billion a year. Many countries generate large portions of their income from tourists who come to sightsee, scuba dive and sun bathe on the beaches of the reefs. It is estimated that the small Caribbean island Bonaire brings in $23 million annually from coral reef activities, while it only costs them $1 million to maintain.
Not only do the reefs help tourism, they also benefit the medical industry. Coral reef organisms provide chemicals used in treatment drugs for cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, leukemia and skin cancer. Currently, over half of all new cancer drugs involve marine life organisms.
Coral reefs even protect coastlines. They act as a buffer zone between the ocean waves and the beaches, reducing coastline vulnerability from the constant pounding of waves and damage from storms.
Yet, even with all of the support they provide, the coral reefs are in danger. The stresses placed on the reef by pollution, global warming, sedimentation and destructive fishing practices are causing the reefs to deteriorate at an alarming rate. Scientists have predicted that in the next 30 years, 32 percent of the reefs may be killed. Already, 27 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been lost or severely damaged.
If our reefs continue to face these stressors, they will die out and food chains will be destroyed, causing the loss of thousands of marine species. This loss of species will affect many nations who rely on the reefs for income. Also, these losses will reduce, or kill off, many food sources for humans, leading to an even greater percentage of people facing hunger. The loss of our planet’s coral reefs will not damage just the oceanic ecosystems, but harm the human world too. Clearly, we need to make saving our coral reefs a priority.
Story by Allison Haag, contributing writer.