The Coral Reef Problem: Saving One of the Planet’s Most Important Resources

Background

Earth’s coral reefs are in danger. Sometimes referred to as “the rain forests of the oceans,” coral reefs are invaluable to ocean and dry land ecosystems. Two immediate threats are substantive. Rising ocean temperatures threaten coral species’ health and environments, as do recurrent introductions of manmade pollutants to coral ecosystems. There are actions humans can take today to support the health and self-sustainability of coral reefs and to defend those reefs from their impending disappearance.

The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef (“GBR”) is Earth’s largest reef system, and it is composed of over 2,900 individual reefs. It provides permanent and temporary habitat to more than 2,100 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises, turtles, birds, sea snakes, fish, and ascidians. Roughly 10% of Earth’s fish species can be found within the GBR. It is an incredibly popular tourist destination, annually hosting over two million visitors who generate approximately 5-6 billion AUD per year.

One of the greatest current threats to the GBR is the ongoing and harmful introduction of pollutants, mainly nitrogen, sediment, and horticultural pesticides. Recently, Australian Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced that Australian governments would soon invest roughly 2 billion AUD to protect the GBR from threats to its water quality. The funding prominently supports the Wet Tropics Program, which is focused on providing grants to farmers to help them to improve their land management practices, specifically in relation to fertilizer use and disposal. Because pollutants are harmful to the GBR and other coral reefs, it is important for farmers to be well educated on best practices as they relate to the use and disposal of horticultural chemicals. There has been recent progress, but it has been slight. According to a combined 2012 and 2013 Reef Plan Report Card, average levels of pollutants entering the GBR had been reduced from previous levels, but only by 10% for nitrogen, 11% for sediment, and 28% for pesticides.

Members of the Australian Green Party (“the Greens”) argue, however, that Mr. Hunt’s word is disingenuous. The Greens assert that the GBR has lost 50% of its coral over the last 27 years and that it stands to lose another 50% (of what remains) in the next 10 years. The Greens are concerned about development of (and plans to develop) portions of Australian coastlines for use as coal and gas ports because those ports require or will require massive amounts of dredging and dumping that pose substantial harm to the GBR. The Greens accuse government majorities of “approving the world’s largest coal port in the [GBR]” and of being on track to approve five more coal and gas ports.

The Caribbean Reefs

Threats to Earth’s coral reefs extend beyond the GBR. Worldwide, between 25% and 33% of all life forms in the oceans make their homes in coral reefs even though coral reefs account for just one-tenth of 1% of the ocean floor. Roughly 500 million humans depend on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, and tourism, and the net economic value of coral reefs is roughly 30 billion USD per year globally. Caribbean coral reefs are essential to the economies of 38 countries and millions of people. A United Nations report on March 31, 2014 warned of substantial threats to Earth’s coral reefs, arguing that coral reefs are “the most vulnerable marine ecosystem[s] on Earth,” and that they could be completely gone within two to three generations if actions are not taken now. Illustratively, one estimate places the Caribbean’s coral losses at 80% in the last 50 years.

Near Belize, Glover’s Reef lost nearly 84% of its coral cover between 1971 and 1999, a span of only 28 years. Yet, Glover’s Reef is one of the Caribbean’s healthiest coral ecosystems. In August of 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed 20 species of coral as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). Rising ocean temperatures make for water that is more acidic, and water that is more acidic is less hospitable for – and dangerous to – coral species. Ocean acidity may increase by as much as 250% by the year 2100. As is case with the GBR, though, Caribbean reefs are also significantly threatened by human intrusion and pollution. Excessive pressure from tourism and insufficient, or nonexistent, controls on development currently allow for the ongoing introduction of manmade pollutants to Caribbean coral reefs.

Solution

Despite the at-times overwhelming conditions impacting Planet Earth’s coral reefs, recent findings indicate all is not lost. Recent research indicates that there are concrete actions humans can take to mitigate damages to reefs and to help reefs recover. Humans can prevent overfishing. Humans can prevent overdevelopment. Humans can prevent the introduction of manmade pollutants to coral reefs.

Even as climate change remains real, importantly, human intervention aimed at preventing overfishing, overdevelopment, and pollution can greatly and immediately reduce localized stressors. If humans are careful about how they implement and maintain sustainable fishing practices, develop land and oceanic resources, and dispose of harmful chemical pollutants, they will promote coral reefs’ abilities to be most resilient to climate change.

Further, some scientists and environmentalists are exemplifying care through the thoughtful implementation of constructive action. Conservationist Ken Nedimyer founded the Coral Restoration Foundation (“CRF”). CRF is a nonprofit group that raises coral in nurseries before transplanting that healthy coral in Florida reefs, and the group is helping coral reefs in their self-sustainability through that introduction of healthy coral. Biological oceanographer Chris Langdon, as another example, has been diligently studying ocean acidification for over twenty years. Langdon is soon due to release new findings that corals can adapt, survive, and grow amid increasing acidification so long as those corals are able to feed on natural foods. He argues that humans can help support corals’ abilities to feed on natural food sources through developing and supporting nurseries, and he has shown that such actions can be effective even in the face of great climactic threats such as rising CO2 levels.

Legislation may be key. Extended research and actions such as listing species under the ESA can provide insights and raise awareness, but cannot execute changes to human systems of operation to the extents legislation can. There are pertinent examples of legislative processes impacting real change. Certain Australians are working to ban dredging and dumping through legal avenues. Barbuda has enacted legislation to protect species of fish and prevent overfishing, particularly through the establishment of marine sanctuaries. The Bahamas, Belize, Bonaire, Cuba, and Curaçao are currently working through legislative processes to enhance marine protections. But there is more work to be done. Whether humans choose to take action to protect the Earth’s coral reefs or choose to do nothing, their decisions will have far-reaching impacts on planetary health and on hundreds of millions of lives – human, marine, or otherwise.

 

The title picture features an aerial view of the  Great Barrier Reef and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner of this image does not endorse this blog.


Sources:

Marie Sansom, Waters Muddied Over Great Barrier Reef Health, Government News (Jan. 30, 2015), http://www.governmentnews.com.au/2015/01/waters-muddied-over-great-barrier-reef-health/.

Laura Parker, As Oceans Heat Up, A Race to Save World’s Coral Reefs, Nat’l Geographic (Jan. 15, 2015), http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/151015/coral-reef-death-climate-change-science-animals/.

Jeremy Jackson & Ayana E. Johnson, We Can Save the Caribbean’s Coral Reefs, N.Y. Times (Sept. 18, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/18/opinion/we-can-save-coral-reefs.html?_r=0.

Bryan Walsh, The Last Coral Reefs, Time (Apr. 03, 2014), http://time.com/48001/the-last-coral-reefs/.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s Great Natural Wonder, http://www.greatbarrierreef.org/great-barrier-reef-facts.php (last visited Feb. 23, 2015).