By Rachel Roberts
Growing up in Hawaii, coral reefs have always had a special place in my heart. I was constantly mesmerized by the way they fostered all sorts of aquatic life, and could influence the way waves broke or didn’t break on shore. I could be floating on a surfboard, and just a couple of feet below would be a coral reef, also known as the “rainforests of the sea.” Their diversity and fragility lends them the name, and much like rainforests, they are a habitat on the decline.
In the United States, coral reefs can be found in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean (Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Island), as well as the Pacific Islands (Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa). They can also be found along the coasts of 100 other countries.
Coral reefs provide invaluable ecosystem services such as recreation, fish for food, and costal protection to over 500 million people. However they’re not only good for people, coral reefs serve as habitat for many marine species. Although coral reefs cover only 0.2% of the ocean floor, scientists estimate that almost one million species of fish, invertebrates, and algae can be found in reefs! Despite being able to support both people and marine life, coral reefs are incredibly fragile. An accidental step on one by a human being can completely kill the coral.
It is estimated that about 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are at risk because of climate change, and human activities such as agricultural chemicals, waste, toxic runoff, invasive species, fishing equipment, and overfishing. If current emission trends continue, many of our remaining coral reefs may disappear within the next 40 years.
Like rainforests, coral reef habitats are incredibly complex. Worldwide monitoring and mapping began a little more than 10 years ago, meaning scientists do not have enough information to reach firm conclusions on the destruction of reefs, or come up with effective solutions to prevent further loss. There are, however, small steps each of us can take to help preserve our local reefs.
When snorkeling recreationally, respect the designated snorkeling areas, and make sure not to step on the reef, to limit the already stressed reef and marine species. Snorkeling can still be enjoyable without touching or breaking the coral; the marine life and coral reefs will thank you. Lastly, try to refrain from buying coral jewelry, and inform your friends about the impacts that buying and selling coral can have on the reef. Let’s work together to keep our reefs thriving and prospering.
“Environment: Healing the Web of Life.” Sustainable World Sourcebook: Critical Issues, Viable Solutions, Resources for Action. Berkeley, CA: Sustainable World Coalition, 2014. 29-31. Print.
“Value of Coral Ecosystems.” NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program: Values. NOAA. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. <http://coralreef.noaa.gov/aboutcorals/values/>.
Weier, John. “Mapping the Decline of Coral Reefs : Feature Articles.” Mapping the Decline of Coral Reefs : Feature Articles. Earth Observatory, 21 Mar. 2001. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. <http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Coral/>.