Coral reefs provide an ecosystem that is essential for various plants and animals by providing food, shelter, and a place for breeding. They also provide services to humans by supporting fisheries, tourism, shoreline protection, and support compounds that can be used to develop new medicines, according to The Nature Conservancy. Less than 1% of the Earth’s surface is covered with coral reefs, yet 25% of marine fish rely on them. Furthermore, at least 500 million people rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, and livelihoods, providing $375 billion annually in goods and services. Throughout the world about 20% of coral reefs have been destroyed within the last few decades with at least another 20% severely degraded.
The Earth Observatory website, created by NASA, states that 4,000 different species of fish and tens of thousands of invertebrates rely on coral reefs with the possibility that there are hundreds of thousands of organisms that have yet to be discovered. However, the coral reefs along the Florida Keys have declined by more than 38% from 1996 to 1999 and the Carysfort Reef, located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (east of Key Largo), has lost 90% of its cover from 1974 to 1999. In a report by the World Resources Institute, which is mentioned on NASA’s website, 58% of all reefs are at risk from human development, where a half a billion of people live within 50 miles from coral reefs.
One of the main causes of coral reef declines along the Florida coast is the results of septic tanks that drain directly into the ocean. The nitrate in human waste stimulates the growth of algae that grows on top of the coral reefs and limits the amount of sunlight needed for their survival. In other areas the use of dynamite to catch fish, over fishing, and global warming negatively affects the reefs, contributing to their decline. Severe storms have been shown to have some effects on coral reefs, but they have been found to be able to recover quickly, whereas human activity seems to have a greater effect where they are unable to recuperate. Coral reefs that are manmade often only last a year or two; therefore, it is imperative that we preserve those that are natural. We rely on this ecosystem for tourism and to sustain various fish populations that we depend on.
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) explains that coral reefs require specific environments, including solid structures where they can attach themselves, and warm waters that are pristine with limited amounts of phosphate and nitrogen nutrients. Waters must also have a moderate amount of wave action that allows the dispersal of waste and replenishes oxygen and plankton to the reef. As we continue to pollute our waters, The Nature Conservancy predicts that by 2050 70% of coral reefs will be gone; so what can we do to help?
- Adopt a coral reef on the Nature Conservancy website.
- Conserve water, which will result to less runoff and wastewater.
- Walk, bike, or ride the bus in order to reduce pollution from fossil fuel emissions that are contributing to bleaching corals.
- Use only ecological or organic fertilizers.
- Do not litter. Fishing lines, nets, and any type of trash can harm fish and reefs.
- Support businesses that care. Ask fishing, boating, hotel, aquariums, dive and snorkeling operators how they help to protect the reef ecosystems.
- Plant trees that help reduce runoff as well as decrease air pollution.
- If snorkeling do not touch coral reefs and be careful where you drop your anchors.
- Volunteer to help coral reef cleanups.
- Contact your local representatives and ask them to help take action towards protecting coral reefs and decreasing pollution that negatively affects their survival.
- Sign this petition that will require the EPA to correct a water pollution test (BOD5) that is currently allowing 60% of pollution caused by nitrogenous waste to be ignored.
- Tell your friends. Many people do not understand the importance of a marine ecosystem and how much we rely on them each day. Spreading the word and letting others know how they are negatively impacting an environment just from everyday normal activities can make people more aware of their actions and encourage them to help.
Coral reef habitats are one of the oldest ecosystems on Earth and we, humans, rely on them drastically for food and economical reasons. They support a wide range of marine animals and are irreplaceable; therefore, if we do not act today we could potentially lose a complex habitat necessary to sustain not only life in the sea, but our own existence.