The vast expanse that stretches just beyond the shoreline and under the horizon holds within it a hidden world, mostly unexplored and unknown. Although the majority of our marine biodiversity is yet to be discovered most of us are familiar with coral reefs, either through pictures or visiting them in person.
Watching life as it unfolds around the reefs is a surreal experience. The ocean slowly soaks up the warm sun as the sunrays race in to create lucent patterns on the shallow ocean floor. Brightly colored fish shimmer in the morning light while corals gently sway on cue to the drifting currents. Tiny creatures find refuge in the meandering crevices of the reefs and others scout it in search of their next meal. Teaming with life the reefs are a magical microcosm of sea creatures. Thousands of species live and thrive in this colorful and vibrant ecosystem giving coral reefs their unique status of being called the rainforest of the oceans.
Covering less than a percent of the ocean floor, corals are often mistaken to be plants when in fact they are classified as animals. The reefs are home to 25% of marine life and they contribute approximately 30 billion dollars to the global economy in carbon absorption, shoreline protection, tourism and fishery. This underwater ecosystem, which is a vital lifeline to both the aquatic life and the global economy, is seriously threatened by human actions. Almost a quarter of the reefs around the world have been permanently destroyed and two-thirds of the remaining reefs are at risk of destruction.
National Geographic: Coral Reefs (Watch short video): Introduction to coral reefs and the role they plan in sustaining marine biodiversity.
Destructive fishing practices
Pollution and Sediments
1. Climate change: Over the last two centuries carbon dioxide (CO2) a green house gas, has not only increased global temperature but now poses a serious concern to marine life. Oceans play a vital role in the Earth’s carbon cycle. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution they have absorbed half the CO2 present in our atmosphere. The increased CO2 levels have increased water temperature and have made our oceans slightly more acidic. At first glance the change in temperature and pH shift may not seem like much to the untrained eye, but studies indicated that marine ecosystems are extremely sensitive to the slightest change in temperature and acidity. Scientists are finding that corals are the most susceptible among all sea creatures to the negative effects of these oceanic changes. They succumb to what is referred to as coral bleaching, the process in which the corals loose their symbiotic algae, which gives them their beautiful color and provide essential nutrients. The loss of this symbiotic relationship causes the coral to turn white and possibly die if normal conditions are not restored quickly.
2. Destructive fishing practices: Blast fishing and Cyanide fishing Blast fishing is an illegal fishing practice prevalent in the Caribbean, parts of East Africa and South East Asia. Dynamites and other home made explosives like bottle bombs are thrown in the water to kill fish. The underwater shock waves from the blast ruptures the fish’s swim bladder, the organ that allows them to maintain their depth and buoyancy. A single blast can kill all marine life within a 30-100 feet range causing permanent and irreversible damage to the reefs. Each blast yields a catch of almost 400 fish, making this a very lucrative practice for impoverished fisherman.
While blast fishing may be a profitable proposition for the fisherman it has enormous environmental implications for the reef’s ecosystem along with being dangerous and extremely wasteful. Explosives sometimes detonate midair, causing serious injury and even fatalities of the fishers. Majority of the fish killed by the blast sink to the bottom of the ocean and those scooped up for sale rot within hours of the catch. This practice is further exacerbating the problem of overfishing. Blast fishing is banned in most countries; however, the lack of enforcement and corruption has aided in perpetuating this practice in the last few decades. Like any other conservation effort, reef conservation will have to be a multi pronged approach involving public policy, law enforcement, education and incentives for the local communities. According to a recent article published by the New York Times, Cambodia has been quite successful in putting an end to this practice and Kenya and Tanzania too have recently committed to combating this at a national level. Unfortunately, the practice of blast fishing continues to be an issue in Indonesia and the Philippines. (The horrors of fishing with dynamite) While countries engage in a political debate to mitigate this threat, international and local NGO’s have been working closely with communities to educate them about the ramifications of losing the reefs and its dynamic ecosystem.
In Tanzania, a Horrific Fishing Tactic Destroys All Sea Life(Read Article)
Cyanide fishing is yet another form of illegal fishing in which reef fish are taken from their natural habitat for the pet trade industry as well as for the live fish food trade. The latter is popular only in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland- China where diners are willing to pay top dollar for certain species of fish. Divers capture fish by squirted sodium cyanide or other poisonous solutions on them, which temporarily stun them and allows for easy capture. According to Sea Shepherd, an international NGO dedicated to conserving marine wildlife, 90% of the fish captured for aquarium trade using cyanide die within the first year. The practice is not only decimating certain species of the fish populations, but it is highly detrimental to the corals too. “Each live fish caught with cyanide destroys about a square yard of coral, according to biologist Sam Mamauag of the International Marinelife Alliance, in the Philippines. Even in lower doses, cyanide can cause coral bleaching and mess with the coral’s biology. Sometimes, the coral is killed outright.” (The Horrific Way Fish Are Caught for Your Aquarium—With Cyanide, National Geographic). National Geographic
The Horrific Way Fish Are Caught for Your Aquarium—With Cyanide(Read Article)
3. Sediments and pollutants: Anchored firmly on the ocean bed, corals are living, breathing organisms. They start off as small polyps, which continue to grow for decades, and can span up to a few feet in diameter. Corals flourish in warm, clear, and clean water. However, in the last few decades these optimal conditions have often been disrupted either by sediment plumes caused by dredging the ocean floor or when pollutants enter the ocean as run offs from land. When sediments stay suspended in water for extended periods of time it deprives corals of the much-needed sunlight to survive and interferes with food absorption. These sediments stress the corals and make them vulnerable to disease.
Disease and death of corals due to sediments -Digging Up the Seafloor Makes Coral Reefs Sick (Read Article)
US Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Disease and death of corals due to pollutants from run-offs (Read more)
4. Irresponsible tourism: Negligent practices like walking on corals, breaking them as souvenirs, or dropping boat anchors on them contribute to the death or destruction of coral reefs.
Who to support
Please find below a list of organizations that are working tirelessly to conserve coral reefs and protect the biodiversity that thrives in it. There are many ways you can support their cause, but the quickest way with immediate impact would be your monetary contributions. Please send your contributions directly to an organization of your choice.
Please note: The two non-profits Reef Check and Coral restoration foundation both offer volunteer outreach programs. In addition to general volunteering they are also looking for recreational divers who can volunteer their time to help with reef study and surveys. Please contact them at at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com if you are interested in volunteering. Reef check is a Los Angeles based non-profit which operates in over 90 countries and territories. Irrespective of where you live I am sure you will be able to volunteer with them at a location close to you. In advance, thank you for your consideration!
Each of these organizations is based and operates in a different part of the world.