Coral Reefs, Our Disappearing Beauty
Coral reefs are one of nature’s riches ecosystems with a diverse existence of life which is ultimately quite complex. They are a colorful ecosystem that plays an important role in the marine world and the human world as well. They are home to countless plants and animals, a source of food, medicines and one of the unique wonders of our world.
While they might bring the image of life near a tropical paradise, there is much more to the coral reef than its beauty. These beauties are home to a diverse population that benefits humans, each type in its own way.
But will we be able to save these natural wonders? Corals belong to the same group of animals as jellyfish and sea anemones. While they seem to move in the current of the ocean, they actually do not move and stay in one place. Coral use their tentacles to feed and exist in colonies. They grow every slowly but they can live anywhere from a few decades to even centuries. They have a hard calcium carbonate skeleton which provides them with protection. The calcium carbonate is continually deposited which added to its size, however, their growth varies depending on the conditions within the environment.
The growth of the coral reef is long and slow and it takes several years for it grow only a few inches. This growth can be even slower when you consider the destructive activities of animals, storms and humans. As the coral grows they form colonies which become the basic foundation of the reef. Coral reefs need particular conditions in order to survive. They generally grow near the shoreline which is a form of protection for the shore. Coral reefs only grow to depths approximately 45 meters because they need sunlight in order to survive.
The amount of oxygen available is also important because coral have symbiotic relationship with some types of algae. The algae live in the coral and perform photosynthesis which makes food for the algae and the coral alike. The coral gives the algae protection and sunlight. For this reason coral reefs are built in shallow, clear water where lights can reach them. The amount of sedimentation mud be low because sediments can block the sunlight they need. There are three main kinds of coral reefs. Each of these is thought to be a stage in the development of the coral reef. (Birkeland, 1997).
These include the fringing reefs, barrier reefs and atolls. Some scientists include a fourth type, the patch reef, as well. The most common type of ref is the fringing reef. Found very near to land they can often form a shallow area in the lagoon. When reefs are formed it is the fringing reef that is formed first. Another type of reef is the barrier reef. It can resemble the fringing reef but they do not form so close to shore and are usually much larger than the fringing reef. The fringing reef grows out and the distance from land becomes greater causing the fringing reef to become a barrier reef.
The atoll is shaped like a horseshoe or can be a circle. It surround the lagoon although there is no land associated with the atoll. This is because when the land subsides, only the reef remains and it has the shape of the land it surrounded. Finally, there is the patch reef which usually are found within the lagoon and ore the outcrops of coral. An abundance of both plant and animal life are an integral part of coral reefs. Scientists continue to discover new species and learn a great deal from coral reefs. First, the coral itself is living with the skeleton of calcium carbonate surrounding them for protection.
The first animal that comes to mind when discussing coral reefs is the fish. Fish of every color swim in the reef, finding food, using it for protection, making it their home. Fish camouflage themselves within the reef to steer clear of larger fish and sharks. Sharks often scour the coral looking for a stray fish. Sea snakes also make the coral reef their home. There are also invertebrates like starfish who travel through the many species of seagrass and algae within the reef. There are many species of sea turtles that make coral reefs their home as well.
These are only a few of the massive variety of creatures that live in the coral reefs. There are urchins, sponges, crabs, eels and literally thousands of others. It is the richest place of biodiversity. In fact, “Guam hosts over 3. 500 species of plants and animals, including 200 different types of corals. ” (Teach Ocean Science, ret. June 14, 2013). In addition to theses kinds of plants and animals, there are also microorganisms that call the coral reef home. Coral reefs don’t only benefit animals and plants, but they also benefit humans. They are one of the oldest ecosystems on our planet and one of the most beautiful.
One way they benefit humans is due to their beauty. Areas with coral reefs bring tourism. This tourism supports local communities, creating jobs for local inhabitants. Visitors come to dive, snorkel, fish and enjoy the coral. These jobs help support the infrastructure of the community and build a strong economy. The economic value of many of the reefs individually are in excess of hundreds of millions of dollars, some over $1 billion each year. More importantly, there are many plants and animals that help us in the creation of new medicines and perfecting ones we already have.
Medicines that have been developed or are being developed from the coral reefs include treatments for heart disease, cancer, arthritis, viruses just to name a few. More obvious than the previously mentioned benefits, coral reefs provide an abundance of fish and other sea life that helps populate the oceans for fishing. This also benefits humans. Fisheries are important for recreation as well as a trade to provide food. Also, as the name implies, coral reefs are a natural buffer between the ocean and the land. This helps prevent property damage, soil erosion, and protects people from storms.
Nearby communities depend on the coral reefs for their well-being. Even though humans depend on the coral reef in so many ways, we are unfortunately slowly losing them. These natural beauties are disappearing at a faster and faster rate. The biggest threat is humans themselves. Healthy coral reefs need clean water but people are polluting these waters causing significant harm to the reefs. Fertilizers, soil, pesticides and even sewage is put into the water. These things make the water unhealthy for corals, smother the reef and make it more likely the will get diseases.
Pollution is a major threat. Humans also often have destructive fishing practices. They use explosives to fish or bang on the reef with large sticks as well as bottom-trawling. In addition to these destructive practices, humans have been overfishing which upsets the natural balance of the ecosystem of the reef. The food chain is then so out of balance that the effects are not only the direct fish population but the entire ocean and beyond. Humans are not the only threats to coral reefs. Natural disasters can also harm the reefs.
Hurricanes and other storms can cause damage as well. Global warming is also a threat. Corals will only survive in a certain water temperature and global warming has caused damage by elevating the levels of coral bleaching. When the reef is already unhealthy it is difficult for it to improve such a disaster. One way our own government has started to help protect the coral reef is by developing the U. S. Coral Reef Task Force. “On June 11, 1998, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13089 on Coral Reef Protection. ” (EPA, Ret. June 10, 2013).
This task force was charge with the duties of mapping and monitoring the US coral reefs, conducting research to identify major causes and consequences of the decline of the reefs and with developing ways to restore the damaged reefs and prevent further damage. Governments have set up Preservation Zones to focus on the cost of human impact to the coral reefs and how to maintain the reefs. Each of us can help protect the coral reef. Be sure to clean up after yourself when you go to the beach. It sounds simple, and it is but many people don’t follow this advice. If you go to the area, be sure not to touch the coral. Take care of it.
Leave shells and other creatures where they are. The food chain is a delicate balance and we should not do anything, no matter how small it might seem, to upset that balance. If you fish, catch only what you will eat. Throw small fish back to reproduce and the largest because they lay the most eggs. And if you don’t fish, eat only the species of fish that are on the sustainable seafood list. Even if you are not in the area, you can reduce the amount of freshwater you use, develop habits that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we produce like using too much electricity or driving a lot. Recycle more, including reusing items.
Basically reducing our carbon footprint helps our coral reefs. Coral reefs are a vital resource in our environment. They are home to an extremely diverse population that is necessary to all life on earth. Humans have come to depend on this ecosystem for numerous things yet we still see the coral reefs disappearing quickly. But this sensitive ecosystem is depending on us was well. We each can do our part by minimizing our own carbon footprint but so much damage has already been done that this alone is not enough. Humans must get involved and be proactive to save this valuable resource before it’s too late.
“What lives on a coral reef?”, Teach Ocean Science, http://www.teachoceanscience.net/teaching_resources/education_modules/coral_reefs_and_climate_change/what_lives_on_a_coral_reef/, retrieved June 14, 2013.
Birkeland, C. (1997). Introduction. In Life and Death of Coral Reefs. Birkeland, C. (ed.). Chapman and Hall, New York.
Achituv, Y. ; Dubinsky, Z. (1990). Evolution and Zoogeography of Coral Reefs. In Ecosystems of the World: 25 Coral Reefs. Dubinsky, Z. (ed.). Elsevier, New York.